In Detroit, getting out the vote is a community effort

Janice M. Winfrey

As chief election officer for the city of Detroit, educating and encouraging residents to exercise their civic duty to vote has been a top priority.

However, the spirit and intent of state election law prohibits nonpartisan election administrators, such as myself, from participating in partisan Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts to increase the number of residents who vote on Election Day. These same laws, while they restrict election administrators, have very little constraints on community and business leaders and nonprofit organizations from partnering to increase voter turnout.

We all know you cannot keep executing the same strategies and expect a different outcome. As city clerk of the largest municipality in Michigan, I would like to offer a few alternatives.

In most urban communities, the lack of transportation presents an added challenge for many voters willing to attend the polls to vote. Transporting voters to the polls on Election Day is an aggressive, yet effective, GOTV strategy.

A natural option is reaching out to churches, schools, taxicab and limousine companies that own transportation fleets to offer free rides to and from the polls. Most organizations and businesses have a vested interest in helping the community wherein they conduct business.

Another, sound strategy to increase the number of residents that vote is to remind them of their civic duty and their constitutional right to participate in the democratic process. A recent study shows that a phone call to encourage a likely voter or simply asking if they intended to vote ended up making the person more likely to vote — a phenomenon known as the “self-prophecy effect.”

Finally, if many residents did not have to choose between their jobs and going to the polls during business hours to vote, voter turnout would increase significantly. Community and business leaders should jointly appeal to the Legislature to make Election Day a state holiday.

While this suggestion is not an overnight solution to increasing voter participation, for many reasons, in terms of a GOTV effort, this idea is a surefire way to increase the number of voters who actually vote each election.

A new study shows that phone calls to encourage people to vote can be made more effective by a simple strategy — that is, by asking would-be voters to spell out what time they plan to vote, where they will be coming from prior to voting and what they will have been doing beforehand.

David Nickerson and Todd Rogers targeted 155,669 voters on the electoral roll in Pennsylvania. Frequent voters had been excluded, so these were people who’d chosen to vote only once between 2000 and the time of this study, which took place just prior to the 2008 presidential primary.

Would-be voters received one of three kinds of phone call: either they were encouraged to vote and reminded of their duty; they were asked whether they intended to vote; or they were asked more detailed questions about when, where etc. they planned to vote. A control group received no phone call.

A classic study in the 1980s found that simply asking people if they intended to vote ended up making them more likely to vote — a phenomenon known as the “self-prophecy effect.” However, this effect wasn’t replicated here.

Would-be voters in the current study, who were simply asked whether they planned to vote or not, were barely more likely to vote than the control group. Same story for the participants who received a call with encouragement to vote. By contrast, would-be voters who were asked questions about the when and where of their voting intentions were, on average, 4.1 per cent more likely to vote.

Janice M. Winfrey is the Detroit city clerk.