Increasing Voter Turnout — One Text at a Time

Voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election hit a 20-year low. The United States is the second largest democracy in the world, yet 40% of registered voters don’t vote in any given election. Not only do our citizens not vote, we spend a fortune on trying to increase voter turnout. In 2016, $6.8 billion was spent on federal elections around the country, the largest amount ever.
 
Where does the money go? The lion’s share of the money is spent on TV ads, with only a fraction of the resources going to digital and direct voter contact methods. Vote.org set out to figure out how to get more people to vote in a cost-efficient, scalable way that could supplement other traditional voting methods.

The reality is the majority of knocked doors go unanswered, TV ads are white noise or irrelevant with DVR, mail is thrown away, your email inbox is often unmanageable, and no one likes unsolicited calls in the middle of dinner.

However, 90% of all text messages are read within 3 minutes. 
 
According to research done prior to 2016, sending text messages proved to be both cost-effective and to increase voter turnout. There were limitations, however, given that the number of voters an organization could contact was limited to members who had satisfied a double opt-in requirement before receiving those messages. In most cases this is a relatively small number of people, as organizations haven’t prioritized this method of engagement with voters and obtained permission to send texts.
 
Thanks to the Hustle platform, a critical new piece of technology behind our experiment, it became possible to send “peer-to-peer” text messages in 2016. That means that each message is sent individually by a human hitting send, removing the double opt-in requirement for message recipients. Combine that with the fact that you can buy data on registered voters for fractions of a cent per person, and we had a solid hypothesis to test. (This data on registered voters already powers every other method of voter contact out there — knocking on doors, sending mail, or making phone calls.)
 
So we set up a controlled experiment with Analyst Institute to contact 1.2 million voters (including the control group) with get-out-the-vote (GOTV) messages. We ultimately expanded (outside this experiment) to contact 2.8 million voters in total (inclusive of our experiment group), sending them 3.8 million text messages (just over 980,000 of those messages were sent on Election Day alone).

In short, for the voters who were part of the experiment, we were able to increase turnout among some of the hardest to turn out voters in the country. We did it in a cost-effective manner, and future programs can build on that.

Best practices from prior experiments indicated that providing voters with polling locations and asking them to make a plan (i.e. mentally go through the process of how they would vote on Election Day) were most effective. So that’s where we began. The experiment showed that texts providing polling locations increased voter turnout by 0.2 percentage points while plan-making texts were ultimately ineffective. Polling location text messages sent cold to young voters targeted from the voter file are an effective turnout tool, generating an effect on par with that observed in an academic meta-analysis of conventional nonpartisan GOTV mail programs.

That’s a particularly important finding because we focused on younger voters who are generally harder to reach and thus more difficult to mobilize on Election Day.

This experiment leaves us with lots of questions. Would different messages perform better? Can we optimize the labor side of the equation to bring costs down further and increase output? Would this technique have an outsize impact in midterm, primary, special, and local elections? Vote.org plans to continue to run experiments to get answers to these questions and we look forward to the growth and potential of the Hustle platform.

Hustle’s platform is a key part of this tactic going forward, so we asked Roddy Lindsay, Hustle co-founder and CEO, what he thought about the collaboration and he said,

“Hustle was proud to support Vote.org on their historic SMS-based voter registration and GOTV drive. We look forward to expanding our partnership even further in advance of the critically important 2018 election, and working together to learn how to effectively engage the most difficult-to-reach voting populations to help achieve Vote.org’s goal of 100% voter participation.”

If you’d like to read the full report, you can find it on vote.org on our research page.