We’ve all lived through our share of special elections in the last three years. But while turnout was historically low in the Markey-Gomez race, one “Get Out the Vote” tactic zeroed in on social behavior to get voters to the polls.
"This victory belongs to you, it belongs to your families," said Senator-elect Ed Markey, after beating Gabriel Gomez by ten points. "I am deeply humbled and I am profoundly grateful, thank you so much."
The special election took place on a hot summer day, and only 27 percent of registered voters cast ballots. With a turnout as low as that, anything could have happened.
"We supported now Senator-elect Markey, so we wanted to do all we could to make sure those voters headed to the polls," said Jeff Gohringer, national press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters, or LCV, a liberal-leaning Super Political Action Committee (PAC). As part of its $1.4 million pro-Markey campaign, LCV volunteers knocked on doors, made phone calls, and sent out the usual campaign ads that fill your mailbox during election season.
But the outreach didn’t stop there. In order to get potential Markey supporters to the polls, LCV used a strategy that is becoming more common: They sent out voter report cards.
"It manages to cut through the sort of clutter that folks receive in the mail during a busy campaign season," Gohringer said. "It really does resonate."
It resonates because it’s personalized. I know, because I got one in the mail.
Eight smiling kids are on the front of the card, on top of bold black lettering that reads “Congratulations on your first Voter Report Card!”
Turn it over, and there’s my name and the following message: “You were a voter in all of the last three general elections, according to public records … This is well above average for your neighborhood.”
While it doesn’t define what counts as my neighborhood, it does include a comparison block chart, and it provides a rating. An arrow points to “Excellent” and three gold stars.
And then, of course, there’s the plug, which is highlighted: “Be a voter on Tuesday, June 25.”
"As a get out the vote technique, it’s very efficient and effective," said Chris Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, who has written about the impact of social pressure on voter turnout.
"If you publicize the act of voting, tell people we’re watching whether or not you vote, not who you vote for, but just whether or not you vote, because voting is a public record, people are significantly more likely to vote," Larimer said.
Gohringer says the LCV sent out more than 40,000 voter report cards in Massachusetts, mostly to registered Democrats or independents. Not all of them received excellent rankings.
"We had folks who voted zero times in the last elections, and folks who voted once or twice, so it really ran the gamut," he said.
Folks who voted once or twice received the rating “good,” which had two stars next to it. If you voted less than that, your rating was “below average,” with no stars.
Larimer says people are more likely to change their behavior if they think they are being watched. In one study he worked on, there was an 8 percent increase among registered voters who received mailings that listed the voting records of their household members and neighbors.
"The only other technique where you get an 8.1 percentage point increase is door-to-door canvassing," he said. "But door-to-door canvasing is pretty time-consuming. You have to train the canvassers. You have to pay the canvassers."
Report cards are a cheaper alternative to door knocking, which is why the method is being widely adopted, and not just by political campaigns.
"It follows many of the recipes that are being used in other domains, such as energy conservation, water conservation, where again the idea of a rating system, of a report card, is increasingly used as a very inexpensive way to produce substantial impact," said Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University. With Larimer, he co-authored an article on social pressure and voter turnout. Whether it’s a pat on the back or a wag of the finger, Green says it has a substantial impact an impact that only lasts for about six months to a year.
"But that can be revived with another mailing that encourages people to think about their position vis-a-vis their neighbors," he said.
For me, I voted but I’m not sure whether this report card motivated my neighbors to do the same.