How To Get People to Vote

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S1: You know, it sounds like you’ve made a lot of calls to people who hung up on you or told you just don’t care. Yeah. Has that discouraged you?

S2: I want to say discouraged. I would say I’m less naive now, but they know that there’s someone who’s out there who wants them to vote, period.

S3: I think that makes a difference.

S4: Welcome to a special short bonus episode of How To I’m Charles Stuart. We are now in the homestretch, as you know, of the U.S. presidential election, and that means that both major candidates are doing everything they can to get your vote. When Joe Biden is president, America is just going to have to go.


S5: Biden said he’s absolutely on board with the funding.

S4: The police wait to deal with covid-19. He’s already struggling ever to exist in our dream of a better future.

S1: To Joe Biden, Donald Trump and I approve this message. It’s one thing to be bombarded with political ads, but what actually motivates people to turn off the TV and get off the couch and into the voting booth? Maybe you’re getting calls from campaign volunteers or you live on a street that’s lined with political yard signs. But I’ve always wondered, does any of that actually work? That’s what Isabel from Boston is trying to figure out to this summer.


S2: I got involved with some political volunteering, so writing postcards to voters of color.


S1: Isabel graduate from high school this past spring. And this fall she was all set to attend Harvard until she decided to take a gap year because of the pandemic. And so instead she got to see her mom battling. covid-19 is a frontline health care worker which convinced Isabel that she needed to get politically involved.

S2: She got a firsthand look at the implications of the pandemic. And for me, that really made me understand how much work there is to be done.

S1: For Isabel, that work meant helping elect Joe Biden. And as she’s gotten more involved in the Biden campaign, she’s gone from writing postcards to strangers to actually talking with him on the phone. How many calls have you made?


S2: That’s a good question. Probably close to 200 or 300, maybe. Maybe more.

S1: And how many how many people do you think you’ve you’ve won a new vote for Joe Biden?

S2: Gosh, 10, 15, maybe 20. I wish it was more.

S1: There was this one person she spoke to, in particular an older woman who had voted her entire life. And this woman spent 20 minutes on the phone with Isabel saying that she didn’t feel like her voice mattered anymore.

S2: She said, I don’t know if I’m going to vote in this election, which just really surprised me and made me think that maybe we aren’t doing our job right. Like, how do we get those kind of people to vote, feel so disenchanted with our political system?


S4: In this special episode, we’re looking at how to get out the vote. And we’ll hear from an expert who literally wrote the book on persuading people to go to the polls. So no matter who you support, you might want to stick around.


S1: To understand what we know about getting people to cast their ballots to accomplish what campaigns refer to as GOTV or get out the vote, we called up Don Green, who’s a professor of political science at Columbia and who spent most of his career researching voter turnout.

S6: That’s right. Did it way back when I was still a pup back in my 30s and now I’m in my arms at the end of my 50. So it’s been a while. So have you solved the problem yet? You if I could just get another. No, no. I think there were we’re a long ways away from it. I mean, I think it’s going to be interesting actually about all these studies is that, you know, 20 plus years ago when we first started, nobody really knew anything much about how inputs translated into outputs. You know, what what do you get if you send somebody a piece of direct mail or a robocall or, you know, a phone call or whatever? How much does that increase turnout?


S1: Part of the problem when Don Green started researching this stuff, was it there wasn’t a lot of science in this particular area of political science.

S6: And I think many people at the time sort of assumed, well, you know, if you knock on a thousand doors and you talk to a thousand people, that’s a thousand votes. And now we realize now that it’s nowhere close to a one to one translation of conversations into votes.

S1: Yeah. And there’s just so many more ways to communicate, to write. It’s it’s not just it’s not just sending postcards are knocking on doors now. It’s text messaging and social media and robocalls and in-person calls.


S6: At the same time, some of the tactics have kind of constrained. You know, I would say that’s harder than ever to contact people by phone. But in some ways, in the last few years, we’ve returned to the idea of authentic personal interaction in this case, say, between friends or people who know each other.

S1: It’s actually kind of surprising to me that that would be shocking to anyone. I would think that we would all intuitively know that, that if I show up and I seem genuine, that I’m going to be more effective than than someone sitting in a in a room is getting paid to make these phone calls.

S6: When I think that what it really came down to in some sense politically was, you know, all of a sudden lots of local party activists were were saying, you know, the parties have centralized campaign resources to the extent that it’s essentially a handful of campaign consultants in Washington running the show. And we, you know, in our in our humble activist way, we’re actually doing a better job in terms of producing votes.


S1: So what Don is saying is that local political activists, people like Isabel or people who can lobby other people that they know within their community, they’re actually pretty effective when it comes to turning out the vote. And you and other researchers and academics found even ways to extend this idea right. To to move from just saying, look, we ought to call up our friends and family. We ought to have volunteers make this pitch to saying, actually, if you enlist social networks, you can you can leverage, for instance, you know, a little bit of peer pressure, right?


S6: I think that’s absolutely right. And in fact, I think that, you know, some of the more interesting findings with respect to a covid environment have to do with social networks and, you know, essentially saying, look, Charles, I really it really matters to me whether you vote in this election. You know, it means a lot to me. And I hope you make your voice heard and, you know, can I get you to pledge to vote? And then I’m going to check up to make sure you do it. So, you know, send me a selfie of you casting a ballot. Those kinds of things in some sense, replicate the Chicago precinct captain who used to get out the vote way back in the day, but do so in a in a much more social network, friendly manner.


S1: What about like, you know, lawn signs and and billboards or, you know, writing postcards to strangers? Like, do those those matter?

S6: Well, it’s with respect to lawn signs, they seem to influence the vote share because they’re mostly about candidates, not so much about voting, but so far as we can tell, they don’t have an effect on voter turnout.

S7: So lawn signs aren’t really worth your time, but when we come back, we’ll hear exactly what Isabel should be doing to reach people in her community and getting them to vote. Don’t go anywhere.

S1: We’re back with Don Greene, our expert in turning out the vote right before I called you, I was talking to this 18 year old first time voter and and she had some questions like how should she actually be spending her time? What’s the formula?


S6: Well, I’d say that Isabel should probably be texting your friends for a couple of reasons. One is that it is an authentic friend, a friend communication. It’s not as though they’re going to be blocking her and they’re not going to be wondering, you know, what organizations putting her up to it. It’ll be an authentic, you know, text from one friend to another second. Is that because she knows a lot of people who are likely to be low propensity voters, 18 year olds, 19 year olds, people who have recently moved? She’s in a much better position to mobilize the kinds of people who could be mobilized in a presidential election than say, I would, you know. So the the idea then is it’s personal. She won’t be blocked. So she has a high contact rate and she’s likely to have had an effect because, you know, this is the kind of authentic communication that can really mobilize people.


S1: So if you’re trying to mobilize voters, you should start with the people, you know, reach out to the folks in your social circle or contact a friend of a friend. That personal connection makes your call more authentic and therefore more likely to convince someone to vote. So when she she calls up a friend or she texts a friend, what would you tell her?

S6: She should say one kind of script is where you’re you know, you’re simply trying to mobilize a Like-Minded person. So if she’s a Biden supporter and she’s talking to people she knows to be other Biden supporters, she can pump them full of Biden supporting enthusiasm. But the alternative is to have a script that focuses much more on civic duty and making their voice heard. And and so any of those scripts will will probably be effective. I think it’s even more effective if she can offer, you know, some kind of assistance. You know, can we go vote together or can I help you, you know, get registered?

S1: Oh, that’s interesting. So so rather than just sort of like encouraging someone say like, how can I help you make this happen?

S6: Yes. And also getting them to pledge to vote is often quite effective, in part because then you can call them or text them right before the election and, you know, basically ask them to make good on their promise.

S1: So if I’m calling someone up and I’m encouraging them to vote, I don’t want to say necessarily I really want you to vote for Joe Biden. I just want to say I want you to vote, period.

S6: Yes, it’s much easier sell. And I think that it’s quite effective. In part, people are sort of surprised that you’re not asking more of them. Sometimes they’ll volunteer that, you know, they’re going to support, you know, in this case, Biden. Right. But it’s kind of interesting is that when they find that you’re just encouraging them to participate, there’s no pushback on their part.

S3: So the biggest thing that Isabel has encountered that that has been hard for her to deal with is the cynicism of voters. And she finds a lot of people who say, you know what, I just don’t think it matters.

S1: I don’t think my vote counts. She was talking to one woman who is in her 80s in Philadelphia, and she said, you know, I’ve been voting for decades and and I’m just I’m so discouraged by all of these candidates.

S6: What do we know that Isabel should say to that person that might might push them to vote, you know, might be useful at that point to ask the person, you know, who’s the last candidate who really, you know, piqued your interest or, you know, inspired you because to riff off of that person might be the appropriate thing to do rather than to push back against the person’s preconceived idea, because you don’t need to get them to vote for everything. You just need to get them to vote.

S1: Yeah, and that reminds me of something that I know I heard a lot during the Obama campaign, which was that volunteers were told if you encounter a voter who’s clearly racist, who’s saying racist things, don’t try and talk them out of their racism. Don’t try and convince them that racism is bad. Instead, find something that they actually believe in that they like and just say, well, look, if you vote for Obama, even if even if you’re racist, you’re going to get what you want because he believes in the same thing you do.

S6: Is that true? I think that’s right. I think that’s probably a good strategy. In part, you know, it’s good because it it maintains whatever rapport is going to be maintained with the person at the door. But also, you know, it is a kind of interesting feature of what we call persuasion in the context of these campaigns, that you’re not trying to persuade people to fundamentally change their outlook on life. You’re trying to persuade people that among the values that they hold dear, you know, on any number of different issues, your candidate intersects with them. So it’s like, you know, it’s like offering people, you know, a restaurant menu. You know, you don’t have to like everything on the on the menu. Just find something you like.


S1: In other words, the key here is persuading someone to vote and not persuading them to change how they see the world, and that means asking them what’s important to them and then playing off of that. And one tactic you can use is what’s known as the hard task, saying to someone, OK, look, we’re all going to go vote. And if you don’t vote, I’m going to give you a really hard time after the election. DONSON Studies show this is a surprisingly effective strategy.

S6: You know, whether you want to really play that kind of hardball with your friends and co-workers and whatever is up to you. And the question is, you know, how can you do it diplomatically? And maybe the right way to do it is to say something like, you know, Charles, it really means a lot to me that you make your voice heard in this election. I’m happy to go where you are to vote. I you know, I’m happy to go virtually. You know, you can we can face time or something as you deposit your mail in ballot into the mailbox. We can have a celebration afterward, but you can’t just sit this one out.

S1: Yeah, no, that makes sense that we make it a positive rather than then you’re not voting out of fear. You’re voting out of expecting to celebrate with me that we get to do something fun together.

S6: That’s right. You know, one of the things that’s interesting about the get out the vote book is, you know, we’re we’re trying to find alternatives to kind of hard edged social pressure. And one of them is gratitude. You know, I’m really going to be grateful.


S1: Oh, that’s interesting that you actually say that to someone like I’m going to be so grateful when you voted yes. It’s going to be great. But why do you think that works?

S6: I think it’s you know, in part because people are they get the message. They certainly understand what a social norm is. They understand that they’re obliging you by acceding to a social norm. They’d really rather not be pressured into it because it’s just painful to to obey social norms. But if you’re going to express gratitude, well, then that feels a lot better. Even if somebody says, well, I’m not sure I’m going to vote after you’ve talked to them about voting, well, you’ve probably nudged them a little bit. And if you nudge them a little bit, if you nudge enough people a little bit, you’re going to generate votes.

S5: I love that makes me want to make a difference even more, and I hope that as November approaches and that I reach out to my friend, that I’ll be able to take on that same attitude and make them feel the same way. And just this conversation has made me want to work on this even more and keep working on this, because even if I’m 18 and just hanging out of my grandparents apartment and making phone calls to voters in Pennsylvania, like a one person has the power to make a difference, which is really cool.

S4: Thank you to Isabel for sharing her idealism and her struggles with us. And to Don Green for all of his fantastic advice, if you’re interested in the stuff, you should definitely look for his book, Get Out the Vote, and we’ll be back next Tuesday like normal with another regular episode of How To. How TOS executive producer is there, John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show and Marc Jacobs, our engineer, our theme music is by Hannas Brown, June Thomas and senior managing producer. And Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio. I’m Charles Duhigg.

S8: Thanks for listening. And go vote.