Progressive Coalition Woos Infrequent Voters

A worker at a callaing bank.

Workers at a California Calls phone bank in San Diego reach out to potential voters. Photo: Amy Isackson/KQED

By Amy Isackson

Twenty people wearing headsets sit at makeshift plywood calling stations – they’re lined with carpet – in a non-descript office space in San Diego. The callers hunch over computers.

20,000 phone numbers of new and infrequent voters around San Diego County have been loaded into sophisticated calling software. The hope is to call 4,000 people in the next five hours and talk to about 1,000 of them. The goal is to get them to vote in Tuesday’s primary.

“We’re talking to voters that people don’t care about,” said Chris Wilson, who directs civic engagement at Equality Alliance in San Diego. It’s one of the progressive organizations participating in a California-wide coalition that is bucking conventional wisdom and putting occasional voters at the core of its strategy.

“Low income communities, we’re talking to people of color, we’re talking to infrequent voters,” said Wilson. “And so, we are empowering people who have been left out of the equation.”

Some are new citizens, others just registered. They’re mostly Latino, African American, Asian and the less affluent. There are actually more infrequent voters in California than people who vote regularly.

However, campaigns and parties go after people who they know they can count on to go to the polls. In California, that’s middle-class whites, who tend to be more conservative. Even though they make up a minority of the electorate, they get an outsized say.

Progressive groups want to change that. Organizers see an opportunity to do so by engaging infrequent voters. And they say these voters could tip the balance on close initiative races.

Wilson says they’ve used sophisticated calculations to determine how many people they need to reach. He says it’s “a more effective way of doing business than the old days of just going knocking on every door and just begging people to go vote.”

For example, the coalition calculates that Governor Brown’s November tax initiative will win or lose by 4 percent. The group plans to push hard to get voters out to support it this fall. The message is the tax hike will preserve services in your communities.

In addition to the strategy and the software, the campaign uses what they call a “three touch” method to motivate people. That means they call voters. They visit them at home. Then a day before the election or on election day, they visit again.

One volunteer told of encouraging a woman out of her slippers and into her tennis shoes last November. She got to the polls just a few minutes before closing.

“When somebody calls you and says ‘Hey, you, I want you to vote,’ you feel like ‘Oh yeah, ok, that could be me. I could vote,'” says Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College. She says personal contact is key to getting infrequent voters to the polls.

“It’s that personal invitation, it causes people to rethink what their conception of a citizen is,” said Michelson. “Whereas if it’s just something you get in the mail, it is easy to dismiss as ‘Well, they’re not really talking to me. Election and voting, that’s what those wealthy white people do.'”

Michelson has run more than 200 field tests in California to study how to turnout occasional voters. Her experiments show that voting is habit forming. Once someone does it, they’re 30 percent more likely to vote in future elections, even if canvassers never contact them again. Michelson says, in an ideal world, parties, campaigns and candidates would understand this: “They would recognize that it’s just as easy to get folks out to vote in these communities.”

Michelson’s research shows that asking people to support a specific cause motivates them more than just asking them to go to the polls.

When Equality Alliance rallied voters around a proposition in November 2010, the group’s turnout rate of unlikely voters in San Diego beat the countywide average by 7 percent.

Ace Smith is a longtime campaign consultant based in San Francisco. He says decisions on where to spend money in campaigns are like emergency room triage decisions. Attending to infrequent voters is thought to be too difficult and costly, so they get left on the gurney. But, he says the statewide progressive coalition may be onto something.

“I think they’re really smart doing what they’re doing. They are tapping a real vein of gold,” said Smith.

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