News Story

Democrats See New Voter Turnout Techniques as Ace in the Hole

An inside look at how political parties get people to the polls

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson has told party faithful that the road to victory runs through new voter turnout technology and tactics. At the State Democratic Party Convention over the Aug. 23-24 weekend, Johnson discussed the “Win Machine,” an application that gives Democrats access to maps on their phones that help them find fellow Democrats in their neighborhoods who didn’t vote in 2010. Being armed with this information will give them the chance to contact the potential voters and try to get them to go to the polls.

“I was at the Democratic convention,” Inside Michigan Politics founder Bill Ballenger told Capitol Confidential. “The Dems are asking why they lost to the Republicans so badly in 2010 after beating the Republicans so easily in 2008. I talked to Lon Johnson and he claims Michigan is actually a plus-nine Democratic state. In other words, there are 9 percent more Democratic voters here than there are Republican voters. He claims their turnout strategy will produce 900,000 more Democratic voters participating in this election than turned out in 2010.

“As I was talking with Johnson, Ed Sarpolus (of the political consulting firm Target Insyght, former MEA lobbyist and pollster for EPIC-MRA) came by and claimed the additional turnout would be half of what Johnson is claiming — 450,000,” Ballenger continued. “Obviously, if either Johnson or Sarpolus are right the Democrats will be in very good shape.”

A striking development in the 2008 presidential election was the number of eligible voters who weren’t expected to turn out but showed up at the polls and voted for now-President Barack Obama. Part of the story behind how that happened might be linked to the Analyst Institute, which was founded in 2007 by AFL-CIO officials and liberal groups. The Analyst Institute works to establish proven “best practices” for creating incentives aimed at getting targeted voters to participate in elections.

According to a New York Times article on the subject, applied peer pressure was one of the methods tested in development of these best practices. A key experiment took place in Michigan during the 2006 gubernatorial primary, in which a group of potential voters were mailed copies of their own voting histories that listed the elections they had voted in and those they had missed. Along with their own histories were the voting histories of their neighbors and a notice that after the election they and their neighbors would receive updated histories. The resulting increase in turnout among the target group was 10 times the impact of traditional pre-election mailings.

Afterward it was decided that the specific method used in the 2006 Michigan experiment was too intimidating. It was toned down for an experiment a few years later in New Jersey where instead of including a list with the voting records of their neighbors in the mailing, only the personal voting history of the individual voter was included, while still making it clear that the voter was being monitored and their history would be updated after the election. A note saying: “We hope to be able to thank you in the future for being the kind of citizen who makes our democracy work” was included.

Though the boost to turnout resulting from use of this method was less spectacular than had been the case with the one used in Michigan, it still increased turnout among the target group by 2.5 percent.

One of several other tactics to increase voter turnout the Analyst Institute has experimented with is a robocall that asks targeted voters questions about what time they’d be voting on come Election Day, where they’d be coming from to get to the polls and what they thought they’d be doing before they went to the polls.

The robocall is based on behavior research that shows that people are more likely to perform an action if they have already visualized doing it.

With a recent poll showing Gov. Rick Snyder now trailing his Democratic rival Mark Schauer, Capitol Confidential asked Republican activist and strategist Greg McNeilly of the Michigan Freedom Fund if the Republicans are aware of the new voter turnout techniques the Democrats plan to use.

“Yes, the Republicans are aware of it and they too have a variety of ways of reaching out to voters,” McNeilly said. “In 2000 the Republicans started experimenting with some of these kinds of things. The result is what came to be called the ‘72 Victory Plan,’ which got that name because it involved contacting voters within 72 hours of an election. By the way, in 2012 the Republicans checked out the method involving voters and their neighbors and verified what the Democrats said they’d found out in 2006.

“In this election cycle alone the Republican contacts with voters in Michigan has surpassed 1 million,” McNeilly continued. “So they are talking not only to Republican voters who have a history of voting in non-presidential years but also to those who have tended to only vote in presidential years.”

But McNeilly said there are a lot of factors involved with approaches to voter outreach.

“The idea that these off-election years are dis-proportionally all about getting base voters to turnout is a bit of a canard,” he said. “Also, the question of efficiency comes into play. Is it efficient to spend a lot of resources contacting people who usually don’t vote and try to change them or, in the end, does doing that result in such a marginal improvement in turnout that it isn’t efficient?

“If Lon Johnson and the Democrats are relying on a turnout strategy, I’d say they’re playing to try not to lose instead of trying to win,” McNeilly added.

Ballenger said the plans being made by the Democrats are interesting. But to say it is one thing while actually accomplishing it is another matter.

“The real question is whether or not the Democrats can actually turnout the kind of numbers they’re talking about in a non-presidential year when President Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot,” Ballenger said. “Maybe they’ll pull a rabbit out of their hat and surprise the Republicans. But what I wonder about is the primary turnout, which was very low. I know there weren’t many races on the Democratic side that were the sort that would attract a lot of voters, but still, if Democratic voters didn’t turnout in large numbers for the primaries that might be an indication that they aren’t likely to in November.”

Robert Kolt, political strategist with Kolt Communications of Lansing, said he is skeptical about relying on voter turnout tactics to try to win elections.

“I think what’s missing so far on the Democratic side is passion,” Kolt said. “I think they need passion to win. It’s early, so something could still happen to change that but it hasn’t happened yet. I just don’t think that a strategy of targeting voters the way they’re talking about will work. In Michigan the Democrats need something that would change the whole landscape.”

Mark Grebner of East Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting said he believes the voter turnout techniques could work pretty well, but the tough part will be executing them properly.

“Certainly it is a good idea, but whether or not they can execute it is another matter. It really comes down to the execution – will they be able to carry it out? Whenever you’re talking about something new there’s a chance that for some reason it won’t work out. On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to make progress doing the same old thing.”

Dennis Darnoi of Farmington Hills-based Densar Communications said turnout boosting ideas can be somewhat important to a campaign, but ultimately the candidates have to be included in the mix.

“It sounds to me like the kind of idea that might sound great but when it comes down to trying to implement it you run into problems,” Darnoi said. “At the end of the day if what you do isn’t connected to the candidate than just telling voters you’re keeping tabs on them will have limited benefit. So, if the question is whether this is likely to be a game-changer; I don’t think so.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.