Get-out-the-vote: 5-step process – enhancing voter turnout

Daniel M. Shea

One excellent illustration of the importance of last-minute campaigning occurred when Rosemary Shea (this author’s mother) ran for her first bid for the Oneonta, New York, School Board.

With one hour to go before the polls closed, the campaign team had exhausted its list of favorable voters. In fact, two or three calls had been made to each to get them out to vote. Determined to work until the last minute, the candidate herself scoured the list of those who had not voted. With 15 minutes to go, she drove across town to pay a “visit” to a household of three would-be Democratic voters. She convinced them to jump in the car and be driven to the polls so they could fulfill their “civic duty.” With seconds to go, all three cast their votes.

Out of the thousands of votes cast, Shea won that election by three votes. Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) can be the most important activity undertaken during a campaign. The record books are filled with elections won and lost by a handful of voters. In every election there are scores of congressional, state legislative, and even senatorial and gubernatorial races that are decided by less than one percent of the votes cast.

Carefully orchestrated last-minute pushes can mean the difference between success and failure. While it may be beneficial to our political system to have everyone vote on election day, the goal of GOTV drives should be to concentrate on those who are likely to vote for your own candidate. There are a number of ways to determine this, including telemarketing identification, demographic and survey research, and geography. Maybe everyone in a candidate’s neighborhood should be encouraged to help their “gal” or “guy.” Party enrollment is also often used.

All things being equal, a person’s party enrollment is the best single predictor of his or her vote choice. Conceivably, the canvass records will produce a list of favorable voters. A good rule of thumb, suggests political consultant Cathy Allen, is to target roughly 10 percent of the voters needed to win. “If you are running a state legislative race and need 15,000 votes to win, you must have at least 1,500 identified supporters whom you will push to the polls.”

Whatever criteria are used, it is important to remember that last-minute pushes are designed to get your voters to the polls. Not simply to kick up turnout.

Every consultant and party operative will advocate a slightly different GOTV approach. Some would rely upon canvassing, doorbell ringing, direct mail and other tactics. Below is a technique that relies upon volunteer efforts and has proven to be quite effective.

Step 1: Early Planning. The team should begin planning GOTV at least 30 days before election day. That means establishing a written plan of action and assigning a coordinator. The plan should lay out specific tasks, dates to accomplish these jobs and who is responsible for completing them.

Moreover, it lists the necessary resources needed – both money and people, supplies and facilities.

Step 2: GOTV Mailer. Between three and five days before the election, a mailer should be sent to voters in all swing and favorable election precincts throughout the district. If it is determined that the swing group is not needed, it may be dropped. The mailing should stress the importance of the election and the difference every vote can make. It is a good idea to include an anecdote of an election won by just a few votes. If the campaign is strapped, a pamphlet can be dropped in target areas during the weekend prior to the election.

Step 3: Phoning Begins. On the eve of the election, the telephone operation should be in full gear. The target group of the phase is more refined than the mailer group. If at all possible, the entire 10 percent GOTV group should be contacted. The message should be similar to the message in the mailer.

Step 4: Poll Watching and Pickup. On the morning of the election, a “poll watcher” should go to each polling place and find a comfortable place to sit. The name of each person coming to vote is noted. These lists are picked up throughout the day, at about two-hour intervals, and brought to the headquarters. Here the names (the ones who have voted) are scratched off a master list of registered voters. This process indicates which registered voters have gone to the polls and which have not at various points of the day.

Step 5: Phoning and Assistance. For the final push, it may not be necessary to begin calling until late in the afternoon on election day. Most people vote either early in the morning or just after work. Thus by about 4:00 p.m. the telephone operation should be in full action, focusing on those in the targeted group who have not yet voted. Very often people will need assistance to get to the polls. Child care or a ride are quite common needs. The campaign should be prepared to provide these services. The process should continue throughout the evening, relying on updated lists from the poll watchers to scratch off recent voters. Right up until the close of the election, there is no reason not to call – several times – prospective supporters who have not voted.

Other GOTV Activities

The mailer-poll-watching-telephoning operation should form the core of the GOTV drive. Yet there are several other activities that might help. A rally might be held in a targeted area the weekend prior to the election. Massive literature drops work as can yard-sign blitzes.

Unless the candidate is down in the polls and a large turnout is deemed the only chance, the campaign should steer clear of untargeted activities such as waving signs at intersections, handing out leaflets at shopping malls and blanket canvassing. Remember GOTV efforts are not about getting voters to the polls, but getting the right voters to the polls.

As for the candidate, this can be a difficult time. Months, if not years, of work are coming to an end. It is a good idea to give the candidate a specific task, perhaps calling his or her best supporters and thanking them for their work. Another possibility is to have the candidate walk from door to door in the highest swing neighborhood in the district. More than anything else, he or she needs to be kept busy – for everyone’s sake!

Daniel M. Shea is assistant professor of Government and Law at Lafayette College and is the author of several books on political parties and elections. This excerpt was adapted from Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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