- Special Projects
With campaign season in full swing, we’ll soon be hearing the usual well-meaning but ineffective admonishments and pleas about low voter turnout in Hawaii.
And low it is, last in the nation for every presidential election since at least 2000. In the last 50 or so years Hawaii has moved from first to last.
The trouble is that the business-as-usual ways of trying to raise turnout here don’t work and for good reason.
These methods don’t work anywhere else either.
These well-meaning but scatter shot efforts in Hawaii show little knowledge about what works best and ignore the ample research dealing with this.
Efforts to increase turnout here have traditionally been sporadic and poorly funded. No organization has taken or been given the responsibility of sustaining voter-turnout projects over the long term.
There are much better strategies available.
In the late 1990s, when the development of modern methods of increasing voter turnout was still in its infancy, two Yale political scientists organized a field experiment that tested different ways of getting people to vote.
It was a pioneering effort that has become a model. Their story is wonderfully reported in Sasha Issenberg’s book “The Victory Lab.” (If you want to learn about the complexities of modern campaigning in an engaging way, read his book.)
Those two Yale social scientists carefully tested the effect of phone calls, direct personal contact, and mailers. They also tried a variety of messages within each of these contact methods.
The way that they measured the success of each method was as important as the methods themselves. These field experiments worked very much like a well-designed scientific experiment. Matched groups of voters received different kinds of turnout information and appeals. A control group got nothing.
These professors convinced a local League of Women Voters chapter in Connecticut to sponsor the field test, which gave the study a non-partisan halo. A foundation put up $50,000 to pay for it.
The results were remarkable because at the time they showed some very clear effects, many of which were counterintuitive.
The most definitive finding was that phone appeals had virtually no impact while the turnout within the group receiving face-to-face personal appeals increased by almost 9 percent.
That was just the beginning of an upsurge in knowledge about how to get people to vote, and today, thanks to a huge increase in turnout research and political candidates’ eagerness to learn from and use the results, we know a lot more than we did during those Connecticut days.
As Issenberg puts it, there is now a whole new “intellectual infrastructure” regarding voter turnout.
This new approach is based on results showing that carefully chosen small things can make a difference. This new way of thinking about turnout rests on the now well-tested assumption that even though there are the broad, structural and relatively stable forces that limit turnout — like age, social class, level of cynicism about government, and the frequency of highly contested races — it is still possible to increase the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots by using some small but effective interventions that can make a difference.
If you are a baseball fan, think of small ball.
Or think of the fight against cancer as an analogy. There are some very broad and hard to change environmental and social factors that affect cancer rates, but there are still ways to both treat the symptoms and change behavior even as these factors continue to exist or to be unknown.
This new approach to turnout, now supported by much more evidence, emphasizes that typically people choose to vote not as a civic duty or as a rational policy response based on maximizing one’s needs. You’ve all experienced those patriotic duty and it’s-in-your-self-interest harangues.
It’s now quite clear that blanket emails, though cheap, are ineffective — low cost but with miniscule results. Fancy mailers also don’t work although no-frill mailers in plain white envelopes do.
Admonishing people to vote also has little effect.
Instead people appear to be most effectively influenced to vote the same way that they are influenced to do other forms of socially desirable actions.
That is what Hawaii Energy, the publicly funded energy efficiency effort, is trying to do when it sends you a letter showing how much electricity you used compared to your neighbors.
One of the most effective ways to get a person to vote is to mail or show her a list of her voting history — as well as her neighbors’ — along with a message that she, as well as her neighbors, will get another such list after the coming election.
That method has been controversial. In one of the early attempts to do this, the folks running the project got enough angry you’re-bullying-me calls and emails to convince them to discontinue that method. Nevertheless, it turned out to be quite effective despite its early cutoff.
Other less extreme methods along these same lines have also been shown to work. Even simply publicizing the past history without the threat of following up after the election increases turnout.
None of these works at all times in all places. That is why it is so essential to have assessments built into the efforts. A good turnout operation needs to be able to measure cost effectiveness — the cost per voter added.
The Connecticut effort is still the model for voter turnout endeavors because that approach includes a way of testing what you are trying.
Imagine a project in Hawaii that would follow the Connecticut model and would both attempt and assess turnout methods that have worked elsewhere. It would require people going door to door to make personal contact, communications specialists who developed various approaches to use, and experienced assessors.
There are three possible ways of doing this.
One is to rely on the candidates themselves. Right now in fact, candidates carry out the most effective and reflective turnout efforts, especially in big-ticket elections.
The problem is that those partisans are quite rightly not interested in increasing turnout overall. That is not their job. They are interested only in increasing turnout among their own supporters and often in suppressing the turnout of everyone else.
Another alternative would turn over the responsibility to Hawaii’s state government, but it’s safe to say that right now no agency in state government has this capacity, the will, or the funds. And it would be a really bad idea to broaden the mission of a state Office of Elections that has trouble grasping the concept that the number of available ballots should equal the number of voters.
The best alternative depends on using Hawaii civic organization dedicated to raising the overall level of civic engagement, like the League of Women Voters or Common Cause, to spearhead this effort.
(I am a member of the Common Cause board of directors, but these are my personal opinions and have never been endorsed or even discussed by that board.)
Kanu Hawaii may be the organization with the best potential for doing this because it has run voter registration drives in the past that by Hawaii standards were extremely well organized. What Kanu, as well as any other group, needs to make this go is money.
Federal tax laws allow good government groups to support voter drives as long as the organization doesn’t advocate in favor of a particular candidate.
Even so, the funds for such a project would have to come from private foundations or civic-minded philanthropists.
This strategy will not turn things around in a dramatic way. The state is not going to jump from its 44 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential race to the 70-plus percent in the highest-turnout states or even to the 59 percent national average.
In fact it is late to mount a full-scale turnout project in time for the 2014 elections. The Legislature recently passed bills that make voter registration easier. Those should help a little, but the really significant change, the ability to register to vote on the day of an election, does not take effect until 2018.
The long-term turnout problem is certainly not going to go away by itself. The sooner that people begin to plan the difficult, piecemeal, continuous but systematic slog needed to increase turnout, the better.
Even with a good plan, the changes will come gradually, but an increase of a couple of percentage points that continues to grow over time is significant, certainly better than the unproductive cycle of despair and moralizing that is the case now.
And what does it say about Hawaii’s commitment to democracy if people here continue to rely on the same bromides over and over, even though they don’t work?