Getting Out the Vote in the Era of COVID-19
Getting Out the Vote (GOTV) is one of the most critical objectives of any campaign: convincing voters to leave their homes and come vote for your candidate on election day. But the challenges presented by COVID-19 have upended traditional GOTV strategy, forcing countless political strategists to consider other means of mobilizing voters.
Howard University’s Karthik Balasubramanian observes that many election efforts leading up to the United States Presidential Election are pivoting to relational-based organizing approaches to mobilization, where individuals stimulate their individual networks through digital tools1.
With a snap election called in BC for October 24, a potential federal election on the horizon, and rumours of a 2021 snap election in Ontario, GOTV efforts must significantly change in Canada’s most populated provinces, existing within the constraints set out by public health protocols.
Back to Basics
To consider new GOTV approaches, go back to the basics and understand what motivates someone to vote. Political economists examine the dilemma of voting through numerous models, including the considerations of “the rational voter” and one’s utility (i.e. happiness) gained from voting.
Voters gain happiness in both casting their ballot and the outcome of an election, whether that is because there is a candidate they support, they prefer having a representative from the governing party, or maybe they get a kick out of taking part in their civic duty. Simultaneously, it “costs” them a bit of their happiness to go vote, like lost time in their day, figuring out where to vote, and the hassle of leaving the house to wait in line at the ballot box.
So, political strategists and their GOTV campaigns are essentially trying to tip a scale: how do we make voting for our candidate more favourable than both the happiness gained from staying at home, combined with the “cost savings” from not having to go vote?
This objective is achieved through various activities, including volunteer calls, social media marketing, door-to-door canvassing, radio/TV ads, election day events, offering voters a ride to the polls, direct mail, physical ads (billboards, lawn signs, etc.), and automated reminders to our supporters about where and when to vote.
Adapting Your GOTV Strategy
As we enter what looks like a “second wave” of COVID-19 with its increased risk of infection, the cost of voting today is much higher than in a pre-COVID world, heavily weighing down the scale to one side. Campaign leadership must seriously consider their election activities and resource allocation early on in their campaigns. Many “bread and butter” techniques to mobilize voters, like door-knocking, bring an increased risk of infection to both campaign volunteers and voters alike. Alternatives must be considered, and concessions must be made to find the next best approach to mobilizing voters.
The authors of Get Out the Vote, an evidence-based book on campaigns, stress the importance of harnessing voters’ social environments and pressures into a voter mobilization strategy. They would encourage campaigns to embrace broad principles in crafting their new campaign strategies in a COVID-world2: Those principles are:
1. Tap into voters’ sense of civic duty
Studies have shown that voters of all ages feel a sense of duty to vote, even more than the duty to be informed; younger voters tend to lag in both regards (3). Stressing the importance of democratic participation, now more than ever, will strike a chord with many in the electorate.
2. Remind voters of their prior commitment to vote
Guilt is a strong motivator for humans and going back on one’s word can weigh heavily on the conscious. Reminding voters of their promise to vote for your candidate can tap into a deep sense of responsibility, serving as a greater motivator than any attempt from your team to pull the voter to the polls.
3. Personalize outreach to voters
Voters want to feel wanted at the polls. Implementing the most efficient and personalized outreach to your supporters will be critical to voters deciding it is worth their time and “cost” to go vote in the middle of the pandemic.
How Voting Will Change
Elections authorities must ensure that voting can be conducted as safely as possible, and we have seen several jurisdictions already administer elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voters in the recent New Brunswick (NB) election were asked to wear masks and use hand sanitizer at the polls. Some NB campaigns were cautiously using traditional modes campaigning, like door-knocking, while others pivoted their resources to socially-distanced tactics, like social media marketing and phone calls; it is important to note that total COVID-19 cases in the province are below 2004.
In the upcoming Nova Scotia municipal elections, voters will be allowed to vote by phone, online, or in-person (5). In South Korea, half a million staff were brought on to sanitize voting stations placed outdoors and take temperatures of voters; those in quarantine were also provided with strict hours in the day to cast their ballots. (6)
Governments may also introduce legislation to allow for changes in the way voting is administered across the country. The federal government is reportedly considering changes that would let voting to occur over a weekend, rather than a single election day. (7) With the looming BC election and Toronto-based federal by-elections, elections authorities may have to administer voting through the constraints set out by existing elections laws, which may cause significant issues, such as delays in voting.
Voting will look very different up until the release of a COVID-19 vaccine. Localized campaigns and party leadership must make precedent-setting decisions on how voter mobilization will take place, considering public health protocol and voter motivation. GOTV strategies can make or break campaigns; how will yours fare in today’s world?
(2) Green, D., & Gerber, A. (2015). What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next. In Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (pp. 155-184). Brookings Institution Press. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7864/j.ctt1657t5x.15
(3) Blais, A., Galais, C., & Mayer, D. (2019). Is It a Duty to Vote and to be Informed? Political Studies Review, 17(4), 328-339. doi:10.1177/1478929919865467