World Events

Opinion: How to vote and to make sure everyone else does too

They ask our advice not just because of our experience in politics, but because they know our advice is based on hundreds of randomized controlled experiments that we and others have conducted measuring what actually increases turnout during elections.

Similar to how drug trials work, voter mobilization experiments randomly assign participants to either a treatment group that receives a specific get out the vote message; or, a control group that gets no specific contact from the researchers. The only systematic difference between the groups is our experimental encouragement to vote (e.g., a door knock). Thus, when we see a difference in turnout between the treatment and control groups, we know that the cause is the specific tactic being studied. This allows us to estimate the effectiveness of individual tactics, like door knocks, volunteer phone calls, leaflets and emails.
The voting process is much more complicated in the US than other countries, and more complicated this election than in the past. In most states, voters must first register to vote by a certain deadline. They then have an opportunity to apply to vote by mail — a method of voting expected to be used more than ever before this November. If the application is accepted, voters receive a vote by mail form and must complete, seal, sign and mail it by a certain deadline according to each state’s rules. If they do not decide to vote by mail, they can vote in person at a polling place on Election Day — or even a few days or weeks before, depending on state rules.

This complicated process means there are several stages where even motivated citizens can be derailed. For people who are motivated to get others to the polls, especially in battleground states, here are five ways you can help increase turnout:

1. Make sure you vote yourself. Many people who intend to vote, fail to. Voting early by mail or in-person helps to ensure that nothing prevents you from voting, allows you to correct possible problems with your ballot and will increase your credibility when you encourage other people to vote.
2. If you or people close to you are voting by mail, track the status of your ballots. To ensure that votes are secret and cast by the intended person, states impose a number of requirements on mailed ballots to be counted. Even experienced voters can run afoul of these rules, especially the signature requirements, so it is good to check on the status of your ballots. If you discover that your initial submission isn’t accepted, many states provide ways to “cure” your ballot and ensure your voice is heard — but they all take time, so vote early.
The three biggest myths about battleground states
3. Nudge family and friends in battleground states. Look over the list of states most likely to be pivotal in the presidential election and think about who you know in these states. According to researchers, communication from friends is more effective than strangers at motivating behavior. Not only are you trusted and respected by the people in your network, but someone in a battleground state will be more likely to answer your call or read your text.
4. Volunteer with a national campaign. Advocacy groups and the parties themselves have sophisticated mobilization campaigns. By signing up to volunteer, campaigns will find ways for you to get in touch with the people most likely to be mobilized in critical states. They will provide you with activities and with tested scripts. The activities may range from postcard writing to texting, from phone calling to door-to-door canvassing. Canvassing tends to be especially powerful, but be sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing while doing it. The scripts will incorporate messaging insights that we and others have found maximize the impact of your efforts. These include prompting people to make a voting plan, emphasizing high expected turnout, underscoring that people will check in on whether they actually vote, and more.
5. Donate to candidates, campaigns and parties. Campaigns are expensive to run. Field organizers, who are needed to train and coordinate volunteers, must be paid. Sending mail to encourage turnout requires money. Getting candidates and their staffs to states to conduct rallies requires travel funds.

There are lots of reasons to vote: Changing specific policies, loving or despising one candidate or party, making sure the voices of under-represented people are heard, or honoring and protecting our fragile democracy. Whatever your reason, please vote, and take the steps described above to make sure others do.


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