Getting Out The Vote with Handwritten Mail
By: Ilan MannApril 28, 2020
Suppose that you are running for class president, and there are 100 eligible voters. If all the voters have to vote, your job is to persuade 51 of them to vote for you. Suppose that your opponent is popular amongst 60 of the eligible voters, and you have the support of 40. You really have your work cut out for you! That is how we usually think of politics – in terms of persuasion.
While that may be the nature of politics in Australia, where voting is compulsory, that is not the case in the vast majority of the democratic world. The rest of the democratic world has become focused on a set of tactics nicknamed GOTV – Get Out The Vote.
For a more accurate thought experiment, suppose you are running for class president, and there are 100 eligible voters, but voting is not compulsory, and in an average election, only 56 of them show up to vote.
Suppose that there are 60 voters who support your opponent, and 40 who support you.
Assuming that 56% of voters likely to show up are proportionally distributed, your opponent can expect 33 – 34 votes, and you can expect 22 – 23 votes.
What political scientists have discovered, however is that the turnout will not be distributed proportionally if you motivate your supporters, and your opponent doesn’t motivate hers.
If you do everything in your power to remind your voter that today is voting day, remind/convince them that their vote counts, and make voting as easy as possible for them, you can reasonably expect to get 80% of your voters to the polls – so you mail your voters, call them, knock on their door, remind them the stakes of the election, offer to drive them to the vote, and get 32 votes in the above hypothetical. Your opponent, knowing that they have the support of the majority of the voters, may do nothing. They can expect a turnout of somewhere around 40% of their supporters in an average election.
Despite being the more popular candidate by far, they will lose the election 32 – 24.
This is a very, very cursory explanation for most of our politics today – for better or for worse; when you hear people talk about the “increase in partisanship,” or things being done to “motivate the base,” this is what they are talking about. Campaigners have learned that they don’t need a majority of the of the eligible voters, they need a majority of the votes cast, and oftentimes enough votes to win can be found amongst their existing supporters without having to persuade anyone.
There are 5 key elements you want to consider when crafting your GOTV letter:
- A reason to vote
Choosing the voters to whom you send your GOTV piece is extremely important. In the hypothetical above, there are 36 voters who supported your opponent, but didn’t vote for her. If you were to accidentally send one of them a GOTV letter, you may motivate them to get out and vote against you, by reminding them that there is an election happening and what the voting details are. There are countless stories of careless GOTV efforts where volunteers from one campaign have driven their opponent’s voters to the polls.
This is not like a persuasion letter, where you want to cast a wide net. Your GOTV letter should only go to voters whose support you are confident that you have.
Contact one of our direct mail experts if you have questions about how to target your GOTV letter.
Timing a GOTV letter can be tricky. Time it to arrive only a day or two before the vote, and you risk a delay caused by the postal service, by someone not checking their mailbox that day, or by your envelope remaining unopened on the kitchen counter.
Time it to arrive two weeks beforehand, and the issues of the campaign have not yet been defined, you have not yet had time to identify all of your supporters, and voters may read it and forget about it, or have the motivating effects wear off before election day.
More saliently, research shows that the more people plan out the details of an activity like voting (where they’re going to vote, when, and with whom) the more likely they are to follow through. That’s something you want to encourage and enable your voters to do with your letter, but they will need a few days to make a cohesive plan. If you ask them to plan when, where, and with whom they’re going to vote a day or two before election day, don’t be surprised if:
a) They feel overwhelmed by the short amount of time they have to rearrange their schedule
b) You find yourself competing with the kid’s soccer practice, or that work thing that they promised to go to.
You want to time your letter to arrive 5 – 7 days before the vote, giving them enough time make a plan to vote.
That is another advantage of handwritten letters – not only do they have higher open rates, they also have higher recall rates. That means that people remember getting handwritten letters; because of their rarity, and because of their perceived value, they stick out in the minds of recipients more than their printed counterparts.
That’s why you normally get a few extra days of staying power out of a handwritten letter.
Think of all the questions that your voter could have about voting, and answer them for them.
Every question is an opportunity for them to decide that voting is not worth the trouble. This may seem irrational to those of you with a spotless voting record, but remember that 45% of voters find an excuse not to vote every presidential election.
“Where is my polling station? I don’t know and I don’t have time to figure it out; I guess I won’t vote.”
“Are polls open before work? How about after work? I need to work late on election day, will they still be open? Well, my one vote wasn’t going to make a difference anyways.”
Make sure your letter gives them the time and place they should vote, what forms of identification they’ll need, how they can get there, etc…
As alluded to above, they should be encouraged to make a detailed plan to vote, ideally including others (offering them a ride is a great way to get that box checked). That adds a bit of accountability to their intention to vote. Though only around 56% vote in an average presidential election, but the vast majority of voters tell pollsters that they intend to vote.
A Reason to Vote
It is not enough to remind people to vote. A good GOTV message reminds them why their vote is important.
Whether it’s informing the voter that the election is expected to be close and their vote is important, or reminding them that the stakes in this particular election are abnormally high, you need to give your voters a “why” to go with the “where and when.”
Consider this ad from the 1964 presidential election, considered by many political operatives to be a prime example of a GOTV message:
Rather than try to persuade people who were already voting to re-elect the president, the Johnson camp reminded voters that “the stakes [were] too high for [them] to stay home.”
Most great letters of any kind have a feedback mechanism, whether it’s a pre-paid reply envelope, a link or a QR code to a website, or a number to call.
Make sure that your GOTV letter provides the opportunity for voters to give feedback in the form of questions, requests for rides, or offers to donate or volunteer.
Your feedback mechanism can take the form a number they can call, email they can reach out to, reply envelope, or even a promise of a follow-up call from one of your volunteers.
Contact us today to get started on your next GOTV campaign, and leverage the power of handwritten mail to get your voters off their couches and out to the polls.