New Year’s Resolution: if you’re an active voter, find and befriend one non-voter

Starting this year, progressives should assign ourselves one mission as a New Year’s Resolution: each person should find one eligible non-voting American compatriot, befriend that person, and make sure s/he votes in the next election.

Not only is that goal a concrete and eminently do-able lift, it’s based on rigorous political science research which back up the effectiveness of personal interactions in turning out voters. Moreover, there’s solid evidence indicating that much of the current get-out-the-vote playbook, based on impersonal contact en masse by strangers, is at best ineffective and at worst a waste of resources. As this article in a digital publication of the Knight Science Journalism Program explains (emphasis added):

The reality, Green and others have found, is that a good deal of the money spent on targeting voters is often wasted.

Using randomized control trials, a gold standard in scientific research where experimental groups are randomly assigned treatments, researchers like Green are trying to separate the rhetoric from the statistics, and they are beginning to figure out what works and what doesn’t for mobilizing voters. Their key insight: The vast majority of phone calls, emails, and mailbox stuffers aimed at boosting voter turnout don’t work unless they are highly personal. The problem: “Personal” is very hard to scale-up.

Take the popular “robocalls,” which are now directly interrupting thousands of voters across the land with pre-recorded messages. While a campaign might spend a dollar per head attempting to nudge voters with such calls, there’s little evidence to suggest that they inspire people to head to the polls, according to Green’s research. On the other hand, he says, more personal conversations with real people have been proven to be more effective — but they take longer and are, of course, much more expensive to pull off.

Mass emails are also generally ineffective at boosting voter turnout, studies conclude. One 2007 analysis summarizing seven field experiments during the 2004 presidential election found that email campaigns resulted in no increase in voter registration or turnout.

The exception to this rule, as with phone calls, were highly personalized email messages.

And what about good old-fashioned snail mail? Green suggests that non-partisan encouragements have been mildly effective. But the sense from more than a dozen studies on the matter, he adds, is that overtly partisan mailers are a waste of time and money.

“When you send people a truckload of advocacy mail about the importance of the election and the issues at stake, blah, blah, blah,” Green said, “it has no effect on turnout.”

The success of this ongoing New Year’s Resolution campaign need not hinge on millions of participants at the outset. It simply aspires to start a chain reaction, ultimately helping to bring more of the 95 million eligible but missing Americans off the voting sidelines. Given the particular viewpoints of those non-voting Americans, the resulting ripple effects of an expanded electorate would be significant, if not profound. The following report by Demos outlines in detail (emphasis added):

While it is difficult to entirely disentangle how much of this policy bias can be explained by differences in turnout, in fact there is strong evidence to suggest that more inclusive voting could help to shift public policy in a more inclusive and widely beneficial direction, particularly for working class and poor Americans and communities of color.

The research on democracy and policy suggests three broad lessons. First, those who vote have more representation than those who do not.43 Second, those who do not vote tend to have views that are more economically progressive than those who do vote.  And third, voting plays a significant role in the distribution of government resources as well as the size of government and who benefits from public policies.

Increasing and equalizing voter turnout is not a panacea for reducing inequality and achieving racial equity in public policy; it is one important factor among others, including the role of money in politics. But, as Robert Franzese argues, where turnout is low and unequal, politicians who already cater to big donors have an even stronger incentive to do so.44 He concludes that whether or not democracies respond to rising inequality is conditioned by the political participation of poorer people in the electorate.45 After the wealth of a country, voter participation and income inequality are the most important determinants of tax and transfer progressivity.46 As President Obama has argued, “It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything.”47 He is correct.

For more information, see “In the Final Push to Mobilize Voters, It’s the Personal Touch That Counts,” Undark (2016); and “Why Voting Matters: Large Disparities In Turnout Benefit The Donor Class,” Demos (2015).