Event Summary: Getting Out the Vote: How to Increase Turnout in 2004

March 30, 2004

Speaking at a Brookings briefing today, authors of a new book on voter turnout suggested that popular methods for turning out the vote, notably direct mail and phone calls, are costly and ineffective, and more personal approaches, such as door-to-door canvassing, can be surprisingly effective and affordable. In addition, high-tech strategies, including e-mail and robotic calling, also fail to significantly boost voter turnout.

The findings were presented today at a Brookings briefing today by authors Donald Green and Alan Gerber. Their book, Get out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout (Brookings Institution Press, 2004), seeks to provide political campaigns with practical, immediate ways to get more voters to the polls. The United States has the second lowest voter turnout of any Western democracy and political campaigns constantly struggle with how to motivate voters, register them, and get them out on Election Day.

The book focuses on short-term strategies to boost voter turnout, rather than proposing long-term, institutional changes such as same-day registration, internet voting, or election day holidays.

“Score one for old-fashioned politics,” Green said. The book shows examples where door-to-door canvassing produced an eight to ten percent increase in voter turnout. Leaflets and direct mail, on the other hand, yielded only one-half to one percent increases in most cases.

“Maybe there is nothing wrong with the voters,” said University of Maryland professor James Gimpel. “They simply need to be asked, and asked in a right way.”

A few panelists were quick to question the book’s argument that “the message does not seem to matter much,” an assertion based on Green’s observations that a candidate’s agenda is not a primary determiner of voter turnout.

“As a pollster, it sticks in my craw that message doesn’t matter” said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “There have been moments of increased turnout that suggest that it actually does matter what the message is.” Greenberg cited as evidence the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, the 1996 presidential campaign of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), and the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign of Jesse Ventura.

For Greenberg, poor turnout stems from voter’s distrust of the electoral and legislative process. “They are deeply, deeply cynical about politics,” Greenberg said. “People don’t believe that voting is a civic duty or that it has any impact on their lives. It’s no surprise, then, that a leaflet left on their door is rejected, because there is already a assumption that it doesn’t matter if you vote.”

Despite the authors’ lack of enthusiasm for high-tech strategies, Zephyr Teachout, former director for internet organization and outreach on Howard Dean’s recent presidential campaign, still sees the Internet as a mobilizing force in politics.

“I think it’s going to change everything,” Teachout said. “The Internet doesn’t tell people to go to polls, but it identifies new messengers?We now have the opportunity with the Internet to identify tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of new canvassers?The power of e-mail is not the political party to you, but rather, you to your neighbor.”

Gimbel warned of a looming “great turnout crash” that could occur when older citizens and Baby Boomers (who vote in high numbers) pass away and “take their high turnout with them.”

“Will newly arriving generations vote anything like those leaving?” Gimbel asked. “For every exiting baby boom voter, how many Generation Y voters will arrive?”