Getting people out to vote – with a little technological assistance

I wrote the following piece for the May edition of Total Politics:

The efforts made by Returning Officers and local councils to encourage people to vote in the weeks running up to polling day are remarkably crude when viewed from a marketing or political campaigning point of view.

Send one, usually A5 sized black and white, text-heavy leaflet to everyone a few weeks before polling day (a poll card), stick a few posters up in libraries and that is pretty much it.

There are some good reasons for this. Shortage of funds in one. Another is that raising turnout is rarely a politically neutral act in its impact on election results, even if people from across the political spectrum agree in abstract that higher turnout is better than lower turnout.

A third problem is that for these reasons, tradition, instinctive caution about using data on people and even principle about treating all voters equally, there is almost no individual targeting of voters. No aiming of extra material at people who didn’t vote in previous elections. No saving of money by putting less effort into reminding to vote those who vote repeatedly anyway.

Truth be told, were I a Returning Officer I would not do that much differently. I certainly would look to update the awful design of most poll cards but I wouldn’t be looking to run a phone bank targeting regular non-voters. That would become too controversial too quickly.

Parties and candidates, however, are not held back in the way that Returning Officers are. Targeting supporters who don’t always vote has long been a staple of election campaigns in the UK.

With the rise of the internet and social networks, the online angle to such Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns continues to grow in importance.

The most important internet technique is also the oldest online one: the trusty email. Individually targeted with mailmerged in details of where someone’s polling station is located and a link to a map, GOTV emails can make a significant difference and at a fraction of the effort that delivering an extra round of leaflets would take. Of course, you should always do both…!

Basic information also often goes down well, particularly with first-time voters who are not yet familiar with the opening hours of polling stations or the knowledge that you do not need to take your poll card with you in order to vote.

Texts and tweets do not have the space to provide that range of useful information but they do have the sense of urgency and immediacy which makes them well suited for follow up reminders, particularly on the day itself. Emails may not get looked at for a day or two; it’s the rare text message which does not get read within minutes.

However, make sure you tie-in such messages with your records of who has voted and who has a postal vote, so the message and the list of recipients can be refined accordingly.

Prompting and providing information are two ways of getting the vote out. A third is to use the power of example: if people see that people they know have voted, they are more likely to vote themselves.

Social networks are almost perfectly designed for such activity. Encourage your supporters to tweet / update their Facebook status once they have voted so their friends can see what they have done.

Some campaigns produce special graphics people can use to change their picture on social networks to an “I’ve voted” logo. This can be visually striking – though remember that even something so simple for the technically adept to do, actually can be quite a challenge for others to manage. There is often a virtue in the simplicity of text updates.

Last minute information about how and where to vote should also be put on websites or blogs as it is often to Google that people will turn to research information. This is particularly important if your local council website is one of the less good ones which either does not provide such timely detailed information or does, but in a way that hides it many clicks away from the front page and obscures it from search engines.

When the election is over, the votes counted and the winners declared, do not forget that you can use all these channels once again to let people know the result. For the general election, there will be many media outlets providing the list of winners and details of vote totals. However, for the local elections there is often a long silence until the next edition of a weekly newspaper appears. Your residents will want to know the result sooner – so tell them.

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