The Midterms are Coming: Effective Approaches for Encouraging People to VOTE

Midterm elections are coming up in the US, which means an opportunity to turn a horrific political reality into one that’s at least slightly less horrific. Needless to say, with many people’s lives and the future of our democracy on the line, we absolutely need to vote this November.*

Somewhat understandably, voting rates in midterm elections tend to be lower than they are for Presidential elections. In the 2014 midterm election, only 37% of eligible Americans voted. This midterm “falloff” (compared to Presidential election years) has been especially pronounced among the youngest voters, so this group represents a prime target for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns.

There’s quite a bit of research on different forms of GOTV campaigns–for example, calling vs. brochures vs. in-person conversations. It’s helpful to know which forms of outreach are most effective (and why), but beyond that, it’s helpful to know exactly what language, when used in these various efforts, is most effective for encouraging people to vote.

Here are a few tips based in social science research for what to write or say when encouraging people to vote:

BE a voter: Use the noun, not the verb

When you ask people to vote, you’re asking them to engage in a specific behavior. This may be effective for some people, but research shows that if you instead ask them to be a voter, people are actually more likely to vote. The subtle difference is in whether the phrase taps into people’s sense of their personal identity (who they can be, not just what they can do).

The researchers who investigated the effects of these different phrases found that people who were reminded of the kind of person they can be (a voter) were more likely to register to vote and, in two separate statewide elections, actually vote than those who were reminded of what they can do (vote).

Make a plan

Many people who intend to vote don’t actually do so. They may like the idea of voting and know which candidates they prefer, but then election day comes, and they forget. Or they become busy with other things, or realize they don’t have a ride. As we all know, there are many things that can come up to prevent a well-intentioned voter from making it to the polling center.

Voting advocates can combat many of these obstacles by reminding people to make a plan to vote. A group researchers had the help of voter mobilization callers to test two scripts — one that just encouraged people to vote, and one that also encouraged them to make a plan (including when they’d vote, how they’d get to the polling center, and what else they’d be doing that day). In the 2008 presidential primary (Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton), people who had been asked about their plans were much more likely to vote than those who had been called but hadn’t discussed plans.

Everyone’s doing it

For better and worse, we like to keep up with each other. If we hear that others are doing something good, we want to do it too. And research confirms that this is true of voting as well. People who read that voter turnout was expected to be high were more likely to vote than those who read that turnout was expected to be low. The work suggests that people aren’t motivated by the idea of being the rare voter, but rather by the idea of following the group to the polls.

We can do this

November is soon, so now’s the time to GOTV. Fortunately, voters** have participated in the primaries leading up to these midterms at higher rates than usual. Indifference is not an option, and with a solid research base, we have plenty of tools to increase voter turnout this November.

And if you’re looking for a good way to contribute to the GOTV movement, check out Postcards to Voters, a group of volunteers that sends handwritten reminders to targeted voters reminding them to vote in key elections for Democrats. You can read more about the ways that the effort is informed by research in an earlier post.


*Full disclosure: Although I value encouraging people to vote, regardless of how they will vote, I unequivocally advocate for people to vote for Democrats in November. I value treating all people equally, with compassion and humanity; rejecting hate; and basing policy decisions in the best available evidence, and today’s Republicans have demonstrated that they are incapable or unwilling to do these things.

**especially Democrats, likely at least in part because of deep antipathy to Trump and his party.

Cover photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

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4 thoughts on “The Midterms are Coming: Effective Approaches for Encouraging People to VOTE

  1. Thanks for this helpful summary — will use with a few people I’m organizing to send out postcards for Mona Shand in MI-42 state race!

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