Op-Ed

Want to increase voter turnout? Here's how.

Campaigns tend to focus on likely voters, but 'unlikely voters' shouldn't be ignored

California's June primary, which set the electoral stage for the November election, will go down in history for one reason: its abysmally low level of voter turnout.

Only a quarter of California's registered voters cast a ballot, the lowest turnout rate in a primary the state has ever seen. A total of 4.46 million Californians voted, fewer than in any statewide primary since 1960, when the state's population was less than half the size it is today. And because voters in low-turnout elections are significantly older, more affluent and more likely to be white, the primary electorate didn't accurately reflect the state's population.

Without intervention, things are unlikely to get better. Voting is habit-forming, but so is sitting out an election. Campaigns, nonprofits and election officials need to do a better job of breaking those habits by reaching out not just to the "likely" voters they favor, but also to those who stayed home in June.

Fortunately, recent research suggests such efforts would yield results. Studies, including one that I worked on, show clearly that focusing on forgotten voters — those who are often left out of "get out the vote" campaigns — can both boost turnout and produce an electorate more representative of California's population as a whole.

Campaigns generally focus their efforts on those they have reason to expect will vote. And since every Californian's turnout history is a matter of public record, it's easy for strategists to target frequent voters in their mobilization efforts.

Records show, for example, that about 4 million Californians who voted in recent November general elections had skipped primaries held earlier in the year. And those people were far less likely to be the focus of campaign efforts. My UC San Diego colleague Seth Hill and I talked to some of the people who ran primary campaigns for the June elections, and they told us that they rarely contact these folks because they believe them to be unlikely to turn out for the primary.

But this can create a vicious cycle, in which people who missed elections in the past receive less attention from campaigns, which in turn makes them more likely to skip elections going forward.

Supported by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation's Madison Initiative, Hill and I used the statewide voter file to identify registered voters who skipped primary elections, and then we randomly selected 150,000 of them to target in this year's June's primary. Partnering with Common Cause, a nonpartisan political reform group, we sent out targeted letters that provided information about the election and urged people to vote.

The letters worked as well as similar letters in past experiments that targeted more frequent voters. Our letters had the same mobilizing impact on independent voters as they did on members of political parties. And, in an especially encouraging finding, the letters spurred the greatest increase in turnout among voters who had participated in the fewest November elections in the previous four years.

What the experiment demonstrated was that campaigns are likely to get just as much bang for their mobilizing buck — and perhaps more — from paying attention to the "unlikely" voters they often overlook.

Other research suggests that targeting different types of often-ignored voters could also pay off for campaigns. Ethnic minorities, especially Latinos, Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans who do not speak English at home, often do not get the full attention of campaigns. But in their path-breaking book, "Mobilizing Inclusion," Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa R. Michelson used randomized experiments to show that well-designed outreach efforts to this group can lead to massive increases in voter turnout. And a group of Yale researchers found that formerly incarcerated felons, who are often ignored by campaigns even after their franchise rights have been restored, could also be effectively mobilized.

The benefit of reaching out to ignored voters is twofold. First, it could help reverse the trend of ever-lower turnout in California elections. And second, it could help create an electorate that is more representative of our state's diverse population.

Thad Kousser is a professor of political science at UC San Diego and the coauthor of "The Power of American Governors" and "The Logic of American Politics."

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