Too often, large swaths of the nation—including those in southern and rural areas, people of color, and young people—are left out of the get-out-the-vote conversation. However, members of these communities deserve to receive the same degree of information, marketing, and engagement that “high propensity voters” receive. Every vote counts, so we should talk to every voter.
Millennials will be the largest voting bloc in the 2020 election; by the 2028 election, the electorate will be even younger and more diverse. That is why there is no better time than now to begin meeting young voters and voters of color where they are and having conversations with them about what it takes to get registered and to become lifelong engaged voters.
While the 2018 midterms resulted in record-level turnout, particularly among young voters, millions of citizens still opted out of exercising their right to vote. In the last presidential election, 100 million voters sat out! As the new acting CEO of Vote.org, responsible for helping 40 million citizens vote last election cycle, I am eyes-wide-open about what is necessary to reach even more voters. And I am constantly thinking about ways to reach those who are routinely underfunded, underserved, and underinformed.
So here’s what it will take: applying meaningful cultural and technological strategies to this space. In the past generation, we’ve watched countless innovations change the fabric of our society. Social media and smartphones have been catalysts for youth activism. We are a different country than we were many years ago, for better or for worse; yet many of these changes have yet to be fully integrated into get-out-the-vote strategy to help enfranchise voting blocs that are rarely targeted.
Here’s how to think outside traditional check-the-box approaches to voter turnout and discover solutions that meaningfully grow election turnout on a broad scale:
Use online tools to democratize the process
We are a society conditioned to rely on tech to achieve virtually all of our day-to-day responsibilities. On any given day, we use technology to commute to and from work, order meals, file taxes, schedule travel, and run our businesses. Engaging in the election process should be no different.
By creating tools and apps that are mobile-accessible, we can simplify the voting process and make it more inclusive of younger generations.
Here’s the bottom line: in 2018, 15.7 million people nationwide visited our nonpartisan voter information website. 1.5 million registered to vote, 1.1 million applied for their absentee ballot, 4.1 million checked their registration status, 3.3 million people looked up their polling place information, 4.8 million people signed up for email-based election reminders, and 2.5 million signed up for SMS election reminders. Almost half of all those people were under 35.
Show up where others don’t—and learn
Too many organizations and campaigns spend money to talk to voters who are modeled as already highly likely to vote. So it’s time we do the opposite.
In every election, our team relies on data. We test, analyze, and refine the most cost-effective tactics that generate exponential reach to communities that are routinely overlooked—especially in rural and southern areas of our nation.
That’s why in 2019, we are showing up in important statewide and other elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania (the places that so many campaigns and partisan groups ignore) with tactics that scale quickly with capital.
For example, across several college campuses of primarily historically black colleges and universities, we will not only run traditional advertising (billboards) but also four million impressions worth of digital advertising and social media. We’ll also run our tried-and-true SMS campaign to eligible voters who are under 30 and people of color with three to four waves of text messages encouraging them to vote.
Every effort we make this year will be applied nationwide with data-driven modifications in 2020. Showing up now with the intent to develop smart, tested tech strategies in the places where conversations are traditionally not being held is how we’ll achieve historical turnout in 2020.
Establish voting habits early
Taking our commitment to the future of voting a step further, we’re actively betting on the reality that voting is habit-forming. It’s the reason we work on turnout every year because if we can turn out people in an “off-year,” we help establish a habit of voting in new communities and significantly increase the likelihood that those voters will turn out to vote in 2020.
So, this year, we decided to launch a new tool that allows us to capture the active, civic-minded young people of the next generation by getting them to pledge, as early as age 13, to register to vote and join the electoral process as soon as they turn 18. Our Pledge to Reg tool is part of a long-term transformational effort intended to help young people establish voting habits early to ensure that future generations can have their voices heard in forming a representative government. We at Vote.org know that a healthy democracy is one where civic participation is introduced early.
By applying the innovations that have changed so many facets of our country’s culture and operations to empower those who have routinely been left out of civic conversations, we envision the kind of win we’ve always hoped for in 2020: an election where, regardless of the political results, turnout reaches an all-time high and everyone’s voice gets heard as our civil rights leaders intended. This issue is personal to us, the right to vote is personal to me, and Vote.org will not stop until the barriers to building a reflective democracy are overcome.
Andrea Hailey is the interim CEO of Vote.org, the leading nonprofit nonpartisan voter turnout organization. She also founded the Civic Engagement Fund (CEF) and is a biracial millennial expert on all aspects of millennial attitudes around activism and civic engagement. She has served as a trusted adviser to various Presidential, Senate, House, State, and local candidates, including the Kennedy family. Andrea currently sits on the board of NARAL and Only Through Us and serves on the leadership council of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture ambassadors program. She resides in Indianapolis.