How low turnout is turned around: international best practice in voter turnout campaigns

A healthy democracy is built on the political participation of its citizens. Elections not only give governments legitimacy, but also create the incentive for politicians to respond to voters’ interests.

In many countries, however, electoral participation is lower than ever. This trend reflects long-term political and social shifts, though a particularly salient election can create a spike in engagement. But effective communication can boost turnout.

This report distils key lessons on increasing voter participation, combining behavioural theories with insights from practitioners who have led some of the most successful turnout campaigns in recent years.

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Successful turnout campaigns share some common approaches:

1. Deep data and insights into citizens’ voting barriers, values and attitudes

2. Clear strategic decisions about which citizen segments to focus on, and how

3. Campaigns with a nuanced, evidence-based choice of message and channel

4. Constant feedback and evaluation of what works best

Key Voting Patterns

  • Voting behaviour can be understood as an acquired habit
  • First elections matter; early experience has a lasting impact
  • Turnout campaign strategies should differentiate between habitual and intermittent abstainers
  • There is evidence backing tactics such as invoking the self, forming implementation intentions and using social pressure

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    A Voting Habit

    Voting is a habit

    Numerous academics argue that voting is habit-forming and so people who have voted in the past are more likely to vote in the future. The very act of voting increases the likelihood of participation in future elections, while not voting depresses subsequent turnout.

    Some scholars, however, question whether this pattern is universal. They argue that the impact of past voting on turnout, whilst clear-cut in the US, varies across contexts and, for instance, is mainly negative in Scandinavia. They point to the ‘first-time boost’ or ‘hype’: second-time voters may know more about voting but also be less enthusiastic.

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    Mobilising Citizens

    To design effective turnout campaigns, it is important to understand the different types of potential non-voters, their barriers and drivers, and mobilisation tactics that work. For habitual non-voters, the primary goal is typically to create a desire to vote.

    For intermittent non-voters, the objective is to facilitate voting by removing barriers. Some studies argue that mobilisation is best directed towards the so-called ‘fence-sitters’ whose propensity to vote is near the indifference threshold set by the general interest in the election. In other words, the electoral context matters and for instance, low-propensity voters can be effectively mobilised only in high-salience races.

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    Effective Voter Mobilisation Techniques

    Language of Identity

    • Framing voting as a means of shaping your identity can be used to motivate socially valuable behaviour.
    • A small change in wording that framed voting as an expression of self rather than as behaviour (e.g. ‘being a voter’ versus ‘voting’) increased voter turnout.

    Voting Plan

    • Phone calls to help people make a voting plan (forming implementation intentions) increased turnout. People are more likely to perform an action if they have visualised doing it.
    • This only worked among those living alone. Multiple-eligible-voter households – probably more likely to make a plan on their own – were unaffected.
    • Neither calls to remind people of the election nor self-prediction calls (i.e. calls reminding people of the election and asking them whether they intend to vote) had a significant impact.

    Voter Report Cards

    • A pre-election mail-out including the voting history of a voter and their neighbour was ten times more effective at increasing propensity to vote than a standard pre-election mail out.
    • Even a softer tone (e.g. expressing gratitude for past voting without mentioning neighbours) combined with a message that voter habits are being monitored was effective (e.g. “our records indicate that you voted in 2008 and we hope to be able to thank you in the future for being a good citizen”).

    Door-to-door canvassing

    • In-person canvassing had a greater impact on voter participation than direct mail, e-mail or phone calls. A standard phone call reminding people of the election and their duty to vote had no effect at all.
    • Voting is highly contagious. A person who might be 25 percent likely to vote would become 85 percent likely to vote if a cohabitant decides to vote because of door-to-door canvassing. The reason is unknown, with lowered cost of voting and social pressure possible explanations.

    Group Mentality

    • Voters respond better to ‘everyone-is-doing-it’ messages (e.g. “turnout is going to be high today”) than to ‘don’t-be-part-of-the-problem’ messages about expected low turnout.

    Trustworthy Messengers

    • Voters responded better to letters in less ‘shiny’ envelopes, similar to what they may expect from a tax authority.
    • E-mails and text messages with less lively ‘from’ fields (e.g. Election Centre) also do better, according to Rock the Vote.

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      Deep Data and Insights

      The role of data and insights in voter turnout campaigns

      • Understand voting habits and identify potential non-voter segments
      • Understand the propensity of each potential non-voter segment to be mobilised, to inform the strategic decision about who to target
      • Discover and test which mobilization techniques are most likely to work for each segment
      • Shape and test campaign themes and messages
      • Inform choice of channels and platforms
      • Target individuals with the messages most likely to be effective for them
      • Continuously monitor engagement and effectiveness of content and messages

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