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What the Data Says About Getting People to Vote From Home

The research behind Vote From Home 2020’s plan to get swing states voting from home this November

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At Vote From Home 2020, we’re completely focused on one thing: taking registered voters who face high risks from voting in person, and getting them to vote from home instead. There are 2.5 million of these voters in battleground states. If we don’t convert them to mail voters, they may not turn out in November — and that would tilt the election to Donald Trump.

In past posts, Vote From Home 2020 co-founder Ben Tyson explained why this work is essential and how our unique “life-cycle organizing model” works. Today, I’m walking through the data behind our work: which voter conversion and mobilization tactics work best, and how effective they are. I’m a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in public policy analysis, and my research focuses on vote-by-mail laws and voter turnout.

By the end of this post, you’ll understand the numbers behind Vote From Home 2020’s strategy of converting in-person voters to mail voters — and why this work is critical to defeating Trump in November.

The problem: 2.5 million critical voters might not turn out

One of the many scary realities of 2020 is that, despite unprecedented enthusiasm among progressives, we can’t count on high turnout in November. That’s because millions of voters at risk of contracting COVID-19 may avoid the polls, without the support they need to vote at home instead.

Black and Latinx voters face much higher risks to voting in person.

To start, recent federal data finds Black and Latinx voters are 3 times more likely to contract Covid-19 than whites. These same voters also face longer voting lines: a Brennan Center report released this summer found that “Latino voters waited on average 46 percent longer than white voters, and Black voters waited on average 45 percent longer than white voters.” And the GOP is now reportedly deploying 50,000 people to “monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious” — in other words, to intimidate voters.

Black, Latinx, AAPI, and young voters are historically far less likely to successfully vote from home.

Research finds that low-income, young, and liberal voters are less likely to vote absentee than older, white, more conservative voters. Part of the problem is a sheer lack of resources: more than half of young people (who are disproportionately people of color) lack access to stamps and printers. Another important issue is lack of information: most young voters, and especially youth of color, have never voted by mail before and aren’t sure how the process works. My own research finds that young people are far less likely to know their state’s mail-voting laws.

We need to help voters navigate the process, so their votes are counted.

Vote From Home 2020 is providing comprehensive vote-by-mail support to young, Black, Latinx, and AAPI swing-state voters. We’re doing everything we can to increase people’s chances of voting successfully from home:

  1. We’re sending paper vote-by-mail applications.
  2. We’re including prepaid postage and well-designed return envelopes.
  3. We’re following up with multiple calls and texts to walk them through the process of applying.
  4. We’re helping voters develop a voting plan so they understand their options for casting a ballot — and we’re doing it early.
  5. We’re staying in touch with voters until we have official confirmation that their ballot has been returned and received.

Let’s break down the data behind each of these choices.

We’re sending paper vote-by-mail applications.

All of our targeted voters are receiving a form that they can fill out to request an absentee ballot. Why paper applications? Because they are incredibly effective at driving take-up of mail voting: a 2017 study found that mailing voters a paper application can nearly double their likelihood of voting from home . A separate 2016 study by the Analyst Institute, a research institution for liberal organizations, found that mailing applications increases turnout by 1.5–2.3 percentage points. In general, sending direct mail to voters is incredibly cost-effective, generating about 10 votes for every $1K spent (VPK), according to the Analyst Institute. (Yes, this sounds like a lot of money, but it’s actually quite affordable in the world of voter mobilization.

We’re including prepaid postage and well-designed return envelopes.

Voters are more likely to return election forms when they don’t have to pay for postage. Case in point: when King County, Washington, rolled out prepaid postage in 2018, it saw its highest-ever levels of vote-by-mail turnout — above and beyond projected turnout based on historical data.

We’re also taking cues from the Center for Civic Design, using their envelope design as a starting point for our direct mail. This research institution extensively tests the language and visuals on election materials to determine which are most effective at driving high return rates.

We’re following up with multiple calls and texts.

We’re committed to contacting voters repeatedly throughout the 2020 election cycle — because it works. Research suggests that repeatedly contacting voters about voting from home, specifically, increases their likelihood of turning out. A 2011 study found that, all else being equal, each additional communication about voting from home improved registered voters’ odds of voting by nearly 4%.

And we’re not limiting ourselves to physical mail. Our incredible team of volunteers is making calls and sending texts to ensure swing-state voters return their mail-in ballot applications — and, eventually, their ballots — on time. We use data from local election offices to know who hasn’t returned their application yet — and our volunteers follow up until they do. Research shows that calling and texting voters increases turnout by up to 3 percentage points and generates approximately 8.5 VPK (text) and 6.6 VPK (phone).

We’re helping voters develop a voting plan — and we’re doing it early.

Our text and phone outreach is largely geared toward helping people make a plan for voting. If they’re already planning to vote from home, great. We get them the information they need to do it. If they’re planning to vote in person, we make sure they’ve taken the steps to have mail voting as a back-up option.

This is critically important. We know from past research that helping individuals form their own voting plan can increase turnout by more than 4 percentage points. Moreover, recent research from the Human Rights Campaign finds that just 48% of voters of color are currently planning to vote from home — but if there’s no Covid cure or vaccine by Election Day, a full 75% of voters of color want to vote from home . Let’s be clear: we are very unlikely to have a cure for Covid by the election. This means that 27% of voters of color who will want to vote from home come election time are not currently taking the preparatory steps to do so, such as formally requesting a mail-in ballot. Vote From Home 2020’s work is focused on closing that gap.

We’re staying in touch with voters until we have official confirmation that their ballot has been returned and received.

For many voters, casting a ballot isn’t the last step to voting. One recent study found that in Florida’s 2018 election, 5.4% of voters ages 18–21 had their ballot rejected, compared to just 0.6% of voters over 65. Black, Hispanic, and other minority voters were more than twice as likely as white voters to have their mail ballots rejected. These voters have a chance to fix the problem and have their vote counted — but many never realize there was a problem in the first place. Our extensive voter outreach program tackles this challenge head-on.

Throughout the voting period, we’ll regularly update our database with information on whose votes have been counted — and whose remain unprocessed. Our volunteers will do everything they can to reach voters whose ballots haven’t gone through, make sure they know there’s a problem, and give them the information they need to take any necessary follow-up actions, such as filling out a signed affidavit and returning to their elections office. If that sounds cumbersome and time-consuming, that’s because it is — which is all the more reason for us to help voters every step of the way.

There you have it — our data-driven approach to helping high-risk swing-state voters cast their ballots by mail in 2020.

Have any questions? Share them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Oh, and while I have your attention — please consider making a grassroots donation to Vote From Home 2020. Every $25 contribution funds 20 mail-in-ballot applications, which we send directly to swing-state voters.

Charlotte Hill is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where she studies election laws and voter turnout. She sits on the boards of RepresentUs and FairVote, is a fellow with the Berkeley Institute for Young Americans, and serves as senior advisor to Vote From Home 2020.

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PhD student at UC Berkeley studying political inequality, interest groups, and democratic reforms

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