In the 2012 presidential election, only 59% of eligible Americans voted. As low as that seems, it was the best turnout since 1968. Turnout hasn’t always been this low. In the 19th century, 70-90% of eligible Americans voted in local and presidential elections. Why the change in turnout? And what can we learn from this trend that’s relevant to your organization’s elections?
Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, says “the robust culture of civic participation of post-Civil War America did more to boost voter turnout than all of the billions of dollars in modern campaigning could ever do.”
Back then, political campaigns brought the party to town — carnivals, parades and speeches. A higher percentage of Americans were engaged in civic culture — discussing issues with local politicians, reading books on political philosophy and listening to debates that lasted several hours. But, by the 1920s, government became more centralized, elections were held less frequently and political parties shifted their campaign spending to broadcast media.
“Radio broadcasts replaced mass meetings and all-day orations,” says Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, author of Why America Stopped Voting. “As the role of voters became increasingly passive, it is little wonder that their enthusiasm for electoral politics waned.”
Modern efforts to increase turnout in presidential campaigns have focused on making it easier to vote — early voting, absentee ballots, mailed ballots — but turnout hasn’t increased. Is there a parallel with association and other membership organization elections, most of whose members are also passive receivers of broadcast messaging from their organization?
In our 2012 Votenet Index of Association and Non-Profit Voting and Election Trends, voter apathy was mentioned more than any other reason as a cause for poor election turnout. The survey participants, primarily association staff, believe voting is important, but they don’t think their members feel the same. Based on turnout reports, they’re right!
Donald P. Green, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University (and featured speaker at our next webinar) told me, “People get enured to skipping elections. Voting is habit-forming so by not voting in local elections, they cultivate the bad habit of not voting in presidential elections.” When asked how this phenomenon applies to associations and other membership organizations, he said, “There’s not a strong sense of obligation on the members’ part. Elections are seen as pro forma and uninteresting.”
Members give many reasons for not voting:
- The election outcome doesn’t have an impact on me.
- My one vote doesn’t make a difference.
- One candidate is just as good as another.
- My vote is merely a rubberstamp of a pre-selected slate.
- I don’t have time to vote.
- I don’t know enough about the candidates or issues.
Members are more likely to vote, Green said, if they have a sense of commitment to or involvement with their organization, or if the election results are truly relevant or important to them. However, if these factors are not present, you can motivate them to vote by removing mental, logistical and cultural barriers and by using persuasive tactics to get them to the “polls.”
This is the first in a series of posts where we’ll share governance and election strategies and marketing and mobilization tactics that will turn passive, apathetic members into active, frequent voters.