Americans of different ethnicities vote at very different rates. Whites and blacks tend to vote more frequently than Latinos and Asians. Older people and wealthier people vote more frequently than the young and the poor. Increasing turnout among groups that tend to vote at lower rates can not only increase their political power, but also change the outcomes of elections.
Could this strategy work? Is it possible to mobilize people who are otherwise uninterested in voting or reluctant to vote? We now have good answers to these questions. People who have not participated much before can indeed be moved to go to the polls.
What Gets Minorities Excited to Vote
What really mobilizes these voters is repeated personal contacting. Lisa García Bedolla and I conducted 268 get-out-the-vote field experiments repeatedly across six electoral cycles from 2006 to 2008. These field experiments were focused on communities with a history of low participation and were conducted in partnership with non-partisan community-based organizations.
Our analysis shows that citizens who haven’t voted much in the past can be inspired by either door-to-door visits or live phone calls. Our research shows that such contacts, especially if repeated, can produce habitual voters. Phone banks from which callers contact the same potential voters twice are especially effective in creating committed voters. Door-to-door campaigns also showed strong results, with one such effort increasing voter turnout by more than 40 percentage points.
Why Personal Contacting Works
Personal contacting works to persuade people to vote regularly even though the interactions do not increase voters’ resources and have little or no impact on their underlying attitudes about public issues. It is the social interaction itself that seems to matter. These interactions appear to change reluctant citizens’ entrenched understandings of themselves. For low-income citizens of color it is very rare to be contacted for the sole purpose of being urged to vote. When such an unexpected interaction occurs, it can be very meaningful. This is one of the main reasons the campaign of Barack Obama was very successful in increasing the amount of African American turnout.
Personal contact to encourage voting can be enough to cause many low-income minority people to see themselves anew, as the sorts of people who regularly go to the polls on Election Day. In turn, voting even once can become habit forming, reinforcing self-identification as “a voter” long after the initial conversation with a canvasser. What is more, voter contacts have strong spillover effects within households, boosting participation by others as much as 60 percent.
Racial appeals don’t work in Minority Communities
Among African-American voters experiments conducted in cooperation with community organizations using non-racial issue-based appeals have successfully increased turnout. The same tests done in among Asian-Americans produced the same results. The data suggests a backlash stemming from the feeling of not being seen as an individual. Focusing on issues of concern for the minority group have proven to be effective techniques for increasing voting numbers.