New Experiments in Minority Voter Mobilization: A Report on the California Votes Initiative is our site of the day4 min read


The James Irvine Foundation has released a 44 page report, “New Experiments in Minority Voter Mobilization: A Report on the California Votes Initiative”,that is the product of a multi-year study of infrequent voters.

The authors of this report, Melissa R. Michelson of California State University East Bay,Lisa García Bedolla of the University of California at Irvine, and Donald P. Green of Yale University are all respected scholars. Green is the author of Get Out The Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout, published in 2004 by the Brookings Institution Press.

While the information here is of tremendous interest to those involved in the hurly burly of political campaigns, there is a very important point they make as well: The electorate that is turning out does not represent California’s diversity. At the beginning of the report, they say:

“In California, the pronounced disparity in civic participation across communities with differing socioeconomic and ethnic characteristics is especially problematic. Our state is home to a diverse population of residents, a substantial portion of whom are newcomers to this region and the country. In addition, many long-time residents, particularly those in low-income and ethnic communities, feel disconnected from the political process and are therefore disinclined to engage in civic affairs. As a result, there is a significant gap in the makeup of Californians who regularly participate in elections — and therefore have disproportionate political clout — and the state’s full population of eligible voters.”

This report reaches 5 major conclusions as to the “best practices” to turn out the vote from infrequent voters:

1. Campaigns should ideally use face-to-face canvassing.

The most personal and immediate of voter outreach methods, face-to-face canvassing is recommended whenever possible.

2. Phone bank calling is enhanced by pre-screening and follow-up with those who earlier expressed an intention to vote.

The next most effective option is live phone banks. While Initiative results do not recommend the exclusive use of robotic calls, using these pre-recorded calls to screen out bad numbers maximizes the efficiency of a subsequent live phone bank — this is of particular importance in large-scale outreach efforts. Also, follow-up calls should be made to those who express an intention to vote during the first contact. In contrast to the findings of previous research, the Initiative’s results suggest that investment in follow-up calls made to this select subset of likely voters is a wise use of resources that can result in significant increases in turnout.

3. Canvassers should be well-trained and drawn from the local communities of interest.

The effectiveness of using local face-to-face and phone bank canvassers affiliated with local organizations is likely influenced by the rapport and trust they are able to establish with contacted voters. But this cannot be taken for granted; even local canvassers from a trusted organization need to be well trained in order for their contacts with voters to be effective. This is a finding supported not only by Initiative experiments, but by previous published work as well.

4. An information-rich message may be more effective than a basic one.

Various experiments testing different messages have generally found that the content of the message does not matter. But a March 2007 NALEO experiment found that an information-rich phone bank message was more effective than a shorter message. However, this may be because the information-rich message was more interactive, resulting in a deeper conversation with contacted voters beyond the delivery of a memorized script. The effect then may signify evidence of the importance of a quality contact, rather than the importance of the content of the delivered message, confirming what is known from previous research. Other Initiative experiments, and other published experiments, have failed to find any message effects.

5. Going to the field too early can decrease the effectiveness of a campaign.

Timing matters to both door-to-door canvassing and phone bank canvassing. Initiative findings recommend that canvassing not begin before four weeks out from Election Day. Although an organization’s earlier efforts may help build its reputation in the community, voters are unlikely to recall or be influenced by get-out-the-vote messages made several months before the polls open.

The report is an ongoing project for the Irvine Foundation, and data from the 2008 elections will be included in future studies and refinements.

This is a must read for political operatives, volunteers, junkies, and those who care about public policy in California and a truly representative government in the state, locally, and in those who represent us in Congress.


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