Empowering Communities by Improving Voter Engagement Practices
A NUMBER OF Haas Institute faculty cluster members have carried out empirical studies investigating how best to activate and mobilize voters of color, especially in lower-income communities. This research is particularly relevant in 2018—a midterm election year. Midterm contests consistently see large decreases in voter participation relative to the previous presidential elections, with drop-off rates sharpest among the young and communities of color. That is, the latter voter groups begin with somewhat lower presidential-year turnout rates than older voters and whites (overall), and then a smaller share remain in the midterm electorates (see Figures 2 and 3).
Some of these discrepancies in participation rates were evident in 2016, even if not always in the ways they were portrayed in the weeks after the election.18 For communities of color, some of the decline that year was no doubt due to the historically unpopular presidential candidates nominated by both major political parties. Also playing a role were new voter suppression laws and other exclusionary voting structures that disproportionately affect African American, Latino, young, and poor voters.19
But in 2016 and midterm years alike, we must also recognize in these uneven turnout drops a major failing on the part of political parties, campaigns, and voter-targeting operations. Here the research of some Haas Institute cluster members offers critical insights for re-activating “drop-off voters” and strengthening communities of color as constituencies that can hold candidates accountable, and thus feel that their participation does indeed matter.
Faculty cluster member Lisa García Bedolla has been at the forefront of research on civic-engagement outreach to voters of color for more than a decade. Between 2006 and 2008, she and collaborator Melissa Michelson were involved in 286 voter mobilization experiments in communities of color in California, from which they draw numerous lessons.
Mobilization to Activate Civic Identities and Participation
Overall, García Bedolla and Michelson’s work supports a model of voter engagement grounded in the establishment of meaningful relationships between outreach campaigns and targeted voters. Such a “relational” approach to Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) mobilization aims to meet citizens where they are, and engage them on basis of their own lived experiences, concerns, and priorities. Outreach should begin not with a staid “pitch,” but with a commitment to listening. Organizers place the focus on the prospective voter, working to draw out insights into her everyday life and what is most important to her. From there, messages about civic engagement may be framed in terms of constituents’ concerns, and a genuine exchange can ensue.20
More specifically, García Bedolla and Michelson develop a model emphasizing the importance of focusing on individual civic identity in GOTV initiatives.21 Due to myriad historical and structural conditions, many voters of color have difficulty experiencing themselves as the type of person who “counts,” and thus should be engaged, in civic and political action.22 Based on their research, García Bedolla and Michelson argue that successful voter outreach conversations are those that engage and help reformulate citizens’ personal civic selfunderstandings. That is, the canvasser should access the potential voter’s senses of political efficacy and civic duty, and work to lead her to a new cognitive orientation toward voting.23 This approach contrasts dramatically with the scripted calls, mailers, and media spots that continue to claim large shares of the funding devoted to voter outreach.
García Bedolla and Michelson’s field experiments also yield a number of other practical lessons about maximizing the impact of relational voter outreach efforts. They find evidence that GOTV is more effective when multiple contacts are made between organizers and potential voters, and spanning a longer period of time than the weeks immediately preceding an election. Who does the canvassing also makes a difference. That is, the messenger often matters as much as the message.24 García Bedolla and Michelson find that civic engagement increases more when campaigns identify, train, and empower local people to canvass, as opposed to bringing in experienced outsiders. It is also significant to employ canvassers who can address immigrant voters in their first language, a practice that affirms—through signaling—the voter’s inclusion in civic life and the electorate. Such signals are especially necessary in periods like the present in which frequent implicit and explicit messages aim to discourage and exclude certain groups from civic participation.
Mobilization to Build Community Capacity
Getting voters involved in one campaign or election cycle is not the same as building the electorate, of course. In fact, a GOTV initiative that is successful in getting people to the polls can end up being counterproductive if it does not leave behind any capacity or sustainable structures for future political participation. For this reason, it is significant to note that recent scholarship on face-to-face campaigns and relational organizing also highlights the longer-term benefits of these approaches in target communities.
A major longer-term dividend of campaign approaches like those García Bedolla and Michelson study is the capacity vested in local individuals who participate in canvassing. On one hand, this capacity comes from the training and experience community members receive. Learning to listen to constituents and steer people with very different interest levels and attitudes toward civic engagement are valuable skills for local political power-building. They are “social capital” that stays in the community, outliving any particular campaign.
But beyond tangible training and skills, local canvassing initiatives also build capacity by increasing the political agency and commitments of canvassers. Going door to door for a campaign requires courage and confidence, the exercise of which can be a transformative experience. This is one of the takeaways of research by UC Berkeley sociologist Elizabeth McKenna and Hahrie Han.25 McKenna and Han further stress the importance of giving campaign volunteers meaningful roles and opportunities to increase their responsibilities. By doing so, a campaign cultivates these individuals’ capacity for leadership, and ideally their future ability to effectively broker or make demands upon campaigns on behalf of their communities. This is part of how communities—especially those routinely cast as undependable voters, or otherwise left out—are grown as constituencies. Again, this end goal is distinct from that of winning an election. Existing research attests that it merits a model that diverges from the convention of spending heavily on mass-media advertising, mailers, and other less-personal and nonplace-based campaign tactics.26
Exclusionary Government as Demobilizing
Finally, a small but important set of recent studies have begun to investigate how the exclusionary policies and practices of government actors might impact civic participation and inclusion. Faculty cluster member Bertrall Ross has written on how the US Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence withdraws support for congressional enhancements to the equal protection rights of minorities. Ross argues that this is part of a broad philosophical shift on the Court—a turn away from a pluralist view that, in a democracy, the law should defend advances toward greater inclusion.27
Zepeda-Millán and colleagues have studied another judicial dynamic with potentially demobilizing effects— the expansion of deportations. Specifically, they investigated how knowledge of mass deportation under the Obama administration affected young Latinos’ attitudes about the Democratic Party.28 These researchers found that once young US-born Latinos were informed that President Obama presided over more deportations than his predecessor, they were significantly less likely to rate the Democrats as “welcoming” to Latinos.29 Street, Zepeda-Millán, and Jones-Correa note that most young Latinos are either “weak partisans” or independents, making such a change in attitude significant. At the same time, only 9 percent of their study’s respondents saw Republicans as “welcoming” to Latinos. Given this, it could be that policies that present the Democrats as “unwelcoming” still may not push US-born Latinos to the GOP. Rather, they might instead weaken their faith in government in general, among other things alienating them from the electorate altogether.
Cluster member Irene Bloemraad has also studied political engagement among young US-born Latinos in the context of mass deportation. In a recent publication, she and co-authors report that, among the Bay Area Latino teenagers they interviewed, those whose parents live in the US without authorization are no less likely to be politically active than those whose parents are citizens.30 Many of these daughters and sons of unauthorized residents participate in community organizing and political action for immigrant rights. Nonetheless, Bloemraad, Sarabia, and Fillingim explain that these young people feel a countervailing demand on their activism: to “stay out of trouble,” and avoid exposing themselves (or family) to unnecessary risks or attention. Together, this suggests that family members’ exposure to the threat of deportation inspires political mobilization, but it also carries restraints around the exercise of rights—a kind of “ripple” chilling effect.
There is a need for more focused research on the role of governing practices in mobilizing and demobilizing different subgroups of eligible voters. We know from post-2016 election surveys that the belief is widespread that “politics” or “the system” is rigged, and it spans primary-candidate and party preferences.31 Such signs of declining faith in democracy should concern us all. But at a time when policy stances from the White House paint the “we” of our representative government ever more narrowly, there is an even stronger imperative to ensure that those who are excluded may find reliable outlets and vehicles for political participation. For example, if certain identities are being picked out for marginalization, opposition political actors will only contribute to alienating and disillusioning those who are targeted if they run away from talk about said identities. Such segmented alienation has corrosive effects that extend beyond government into wider social relations; in short, it is bad for us all.
- 18. Clark, “What Didn’t Happen?,” pp. 9-12.
- 19. 9 Joshua Clark, “Widening the Lens on Voter Suppression: From Calculating Lost Votes to Fighting for Effective Voting Rights,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, July 2018.
- 20. Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa R. Michelson, Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns, Yale University Press, 2012.
- 21. Ibid.
- 22. Among the notable structural conditions are racial and partisan gerrymandering, and the position of money in politics, both of which distort campaigns’ and politicians’ incentives to court, represent, and be held accountable by certain segments of their constituencies. Restrictive voting laws that blatantly target groups like African Americans, Latinos, or young people also foster or strengthen cynicism about political participation among those affected. See further, Clark, “Widening the Lens on Voter Suppression.
- 23. García Bedolla and Michelson, Mobilizing Inclusion
- 24. For an example, see García Bedolla and Michelson’s discussion of a successful door-to-door experiment in which new and non-citizen Latinos canvassed among Latino “infrequent voters.” Ibid., pp. 118- 119.
- 25. Elizabeth McKenna and Hahrie Han, Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America, Oxford University Press (2015).
- 26. Ibid.
- 27. Bertrall L. Ross, “Democracy and Renewed Distrust: Equal Protection and the Evolving Judicial Conception of Politics,” California Law Review 101(6): 1565-1640 (2013)
- 28. Alex Street, Chris Zepeda-Millán, and Michael Jones-Correa, “Mass Deportations and the Future of Latino Partisanship,” Social Science Quarterly 96(2): 540-552.
- 29. Ibid.
- 30. Irene Bloemraad, Heidy Sarabia, and Angela E. Fillingim, “‘Staying out of Trouble’ and Doing What Is ‘Right’: Citizenship Acts, Citizenship Ideals, and the Effects of Legal Status on SecondGeneration Youth,” American Behavioral Scientist 60(13): 1534- 1552 (2016).
- 31. Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, Insights from the 2016 VOTER Survey