Postcards to Voters: What the Research Says

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering to write postcards to registered voters to alert or remind them of upcoming elections (as well as to mention the Democratic candidate running in that election). My postcards are part of a grassroots effort called Postcards to Voters, which has picked up lots of steam — there are over 18,000 volunteers who have collectively written and sent over half a million postcards.

As I understand it, the primary goal of Postcards to Voters is not to persuade. We’re sending notices to registered Democrats about Democratic candidates, so I predict that few are undecided about or opposed to the candidate they receive a postcard about. Instead, the primary goal is to increase voter turnout (among people who are already likely to vote for the candidate); it’s a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) initiative.

I mentioned this project to a friend who asked me whether there’s research on the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters. To the best of my knowledge, this project hasn’t been studied, and that does make the scientific thinker in me slightly uncomfortable. But only slightly. Because whether it’s effective for the recipient, I know that creating the postcards is a positive outlet for my political angst. I don’t need research to show me that.

But also, there’s a substantial body of research, especially from political science, that can shed light on when and how Postcards to Voters can be successful for GOTV. Fortunately, a number of studies suggest that while campaigns rarely persuade voters, they can be effective in boosting voter turnout, especially for primary elections (which is what Postcards to Voters is aimed at during this time of year).

However, some research on GOTV initiatives is less than encouraging:

The guide to grassroots elections Get Out the Vote determined that GOTV efforts averaged one vote every 15 door knocks by volunteers ($31 dollars per vote), 35 phone calls by volunteers ($35 dollars per vote), or 273 pieces of nonpartisan direct mail ($91 dollars per vote, no effect from partisan direct mail).

(Yes, I found this information on Wikipedia.)

Along these lines, another study revealed that Democrats who received mail reminders to vote in the 2016 Presidential election did not vote at a higher rate than those who didn’t receive the reminders. Again, this is not encouraging, but we have to consider the context of the 2016 Presidential election: I highly doubt that many Americans forgot to vote on November 8, 2016. For months leading up to the election, the American public was swamped with information, opinions, and advertisements about the election. Those who were eligible to vote and were inclined to do so were likely going to vote whether they received a mail reminder or not. This is a stark contrast to elections that are probably way less publicized, like for the Yolo (CA) County District Attorney or the Nebraska Legislative District 6 State Legislature positions (both of which I have written postcards for this past week). There is a much greater opportunity for GOTV mail like our postcards to make a difference when voters aren’t already inundated by information about the election, when a message could actually serve as a reminder. In fact, at least one past study shows that text message reminders can be sufficient for reminding people to vote.

Additional research points to other features of productive GOTV campaigns, some of which are also features of Postcards to Voters. For example, personalized messages work better than generic ones: Since all Postcards to Voters are handwritten, they have the potential to be much more personal than mass-produced messages.

It wouldn’t be impossible to directly study the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters, but rigorously studying the initiative would compromise a lot of what makes the effort so great. For one, an ideal study might require the postcards to be standardized, so that every voter gets exactly the same information, presented in similar ways, with the same designs or embellishments on the card. There is currently a base level of standardization — three points (the candidate, the election date, and one other piece of info) that must be included on each card, but there are many other points for postcard creators to choose among if they’d like to add more info, and the design is totally up to them. This is a wonderful aspect of the project, and probably one that keeps people excited to continue making more postcards.

In addition, a controlled experiment would mean that some people (about half of the registered Democrats for the elections that Postcards to Voters target) would not get postcards — they would be the control group. Then researchers would have to track, for each election, whether each registered Democrat received a postcard or not and whether each registered Democrat voted or not, in order to examine the potential relationship between receiving a postcard and voting. It’s possible some researchers are tracking this exact information right now, but as far as I know, voters aren’t being randomly assigned to receive postcards or not. That would mean that we’re passing up sending postcards to half of our target audience, just so we could have a neat control group for experimental reasons. My understanding is that we’re sending postcards to as many registered Democratic voters as possible for each election, rather than setting some aside for control purposes. Again, that is probably a very good thing.

Postcards to Voters is not an academic exercise. It’s not designed to contribute to political science theory on who votes and why. It’s designed to GOTV as powerfully as possible, to reach as many voters as possible, and to engage as many people as possible in the creation process. It’s true that it hasn’t been scientifically validated, but it does rest on a foundation of research that shows that GOTV efforts can be effective. Personally, I’m willing to forgo the hard proof on this one in exchange for maximizing inclusivity and participation in the democratic process.

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21 thoughts on “Postcards to Voters: What the Research Says

  1. Terrific post, which I found through Postcards to Voters on their FB page. I also write postcards for the group. Like you, it helps me to feel as if I am taking some small measure in moving us forward as a nation. If one of my postcards gets someone out to vote, then it’s a win-win! #resist

  2. Thanks for this post. Writing postcards is SO theraputic for me — and the Doug Jones campaign (my first for postcards) was some seriously positive reinforcement. So I keep writing, albeit not as frantically as I did for Doug.

  3. I just did my first postcards with my husband sort of rolling his eyes in a, “this is a wasted effort,” sort of way. I just have to believe that getting a postcard from a Democrat in Alabama is more effective than getting a slick campaign flyer. And yeah, it’s a good way for an introvert to get involved. 😊

    1. Yes! I hate being on the phone and I think a lot of people also hate being called, so I can’t get myself to make calls to get out the vote. But hand-written postcards… 🙂

  4. I’ve been buying old National Parks postcards, so my writing is teeny-tiny – but I like to think of them as “America Postcards to American Voters”. Great post, Rose!

    1. Thanks! The old National Parks postcards is a really cool idea. I’ve been collecting them from friends who stumble upon them in serendipitous places — magazines, hotel rooms… The group effort and eclectic mix make me love it even more. Happy writing!

  5. I like to track the posts on PC2V about the elections we’ve participated in – and what I see is that win or lose, we’re participating in something that does work in combination with all other efforts. Remember that 68 point swing in Kentucky? The 750 vote win by Connor Lamb in PA? And even the didn’t win data is encouraging… as many of the races we’ve worked for were VERY close when they weren’t expected to be. Also… this isn’t just about midterms (though they are critical). This is about special elections, preparing for the national elections down the road, turning back the bad legislation that has been put into place, and holding blatantly corrupt officials accountable. (Take back the House, sweep out the dirty Cabinet!)

    I see results everywhere. I see participants pitching in on the local level, serving on councils and commissions and progressive nonprofits, and stepping up in ways that they would not have without the Posse Postcardtatus. I know I’m one. I know others personal who are doing that. I bet… there’s more results to the postcard than just Get Me to the Polls On Time!

    Love to all, Kathy

  6. .I’ve been writing postcards for #postcardsToVoters since November 2017 beginning with Doug Jones and I love it! So far I have written and mailed over 800 on my own dime! I use Women in Science, National Parks or Monuments, Stay Calm, Be a Voter, etc postcards.. It’s keeping me sane…ok…semi-sane! If you aren’t writing with us, please check it out and consider it! I love it because you can do it in the comfort And privacy of your own home especially if you are an introvert or have medical issues like me.. Write On!

  7. Hi Rose, I’m planning a postcard party and feeling a bit tongue-tied about an enthusiastic, but not too long explanation of what P2V is, and what we will be doing at the party. Is there a little “script” that has been created that seems to be effective, enthusiastic, but to the point? I will be sending it as an email. Thank you!

    1. Hi Judith, awesome, I’m so glad you’ll have a postcard party! I really like this description from the P2V site (and their website in general might be good to point invitees to as well!): “Postcards to Voters are friendly, handwritten reminders from volunteers to targeted voters giving Democrats a winning edge in close, key races coast to coast.” (https://postcardstovoters.org/about/)

  8. Where do I find lists of voters to write to? Dates or states that need our attention?
    Just starting this and have friends who are waiting for my lead. Thank you.

    1. Hi! So glad to hear you’re on board. You should fill out the volunteer form: https://postcardstovoters.org/volunteer/
      From there, you’ll receive instructions for getting addresses and messages to write. In general, each time you want to write, you choose how many cards you’d like to make and which campaign (if there are multiple that P2V is working on), and you get the addresses and talking points on the spot. It’s a great system!

  9. this is very encouraging! “Research conducted by the Analyst Institute in early 2018 for Postcards4VA and the Women Effect Action Fund measured the electoral impact of handwritten mail. According to a June 22 post in Blue Virginia, that research found “an increase in voter turnout among those infrequent voters receiving a handwritten note…similar to the bump in turnout generated by a typical Get-Out-The-Vote door to door canvass.”

    Postcards, Analyst Institute found, increased turnout by 0.4 percent, compared to the typical GOTV canvass’ 0.3 percent positive impact on turnout. Postcarding, the study concluded, “has an as good or better effect on voter turnout than the tactic most commonly used by political campaigns.”

    https://demwritepress.com/2018/07/03/old-is-new-again-as-activists-use-handwritten-postcards-for-voter-outreach/

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