Organizing Pillar Deep Dive: Voter Registration with The Analyst Institute
Through a variety of different goals, political organizers operate using four main pillars: persuasion, organizational building, voter registration, and turnout. Campaign leadership uses these pillars to determine the best, most efficient path to gaining the right amount of votes needed to meet the campaign’s win number.
Each issue of 63 Magazine, we will take a look at one pillar, conducting a deep dive with experts in the field to provide you with easy and implementable best practices to use in your turf. For this issue, we spoke with Lauren Keane, director of civic engagement at the Analyst Institute, and Josh Rosmarin, director of special projects at the Analyst Institute, to learn about the research they’re working on around voter registration and to discuss best practices for registering new voters.
The Analyst Institute believes that the progressive community can gain a sustainable competitive advantage by testing strategies and sharing these findings within the community. By running experimental tests for hundreds of progressive organizations, campaigns, and political groups, the Analyst Institute aims to inform action with rigorous evidence.
In her role as director of civic engagement, Lauren manages a team of social scientists and political strategists who provide field experiments that help organizations differentiate between what they’re doing that works and what they’re doing that doesn’t work. Often focusing on non-partisan voting engagement, she and her team conduct research around voter registration, Get Out the Vote (GOTV), membership recruitment, and activist engagement.
Lauren found her way to political experiments in graduate school, where she met Dr. David Nickerson (we discussed persuasion with him in Issue 2), and began working with him on field experiments in the 2008 election. While doing the research, she fell in love with the fact that their work had real world implications—real world implications that helped organizations get better at their work for causes she cared about. Hooked to this practical work, she began working at the Analyst Institute, managing field experiments while still in graduate school, and now leads a team doing the same thing.
Josh, the director of special projects at Analyst Institute, works in the research and development team conducting research on methodological innovations and building tools to help the progressive movement become more efficient. While in college and pursuing work in health policy, Josh suddenly shifted gears after the 2010 Massachusetts senatorial race that elected Scott Brown and made the passage of the Affordable Care Act much more challenging.
Josh then realized he was more motivated to actually elect progressive legislators to office in the first place who could then implement effective policies. With undergraduate experience working with Don Green and Alan Gerber, pioneers in using experiments in campaigns, Josh went back to his roots to apply his experience and skills to have a big impact on all progressive campaigns.
Josh and Lauren find themselves doing a lot of work together around voter registration. Voter registration, compelling and important work, is ultimately a big challenge. It’s not that easy to conduct voter registration experiments.
At such an early point in research, the Analyst Institute is still tackling the big questions around voter registration: Where can we most cost efficiently allocate our resources? Are we measuring the right things when we just track registrations cards collected? Or should we look at net registration (the amount of people who would not have registered but for our efforts)?
While researchers continue to tackle these big questions (and future questions like what language works best to register voters), there are many easy, practical steps you can take as an organizer to improve your registration efforts.
Here are the best practices we discussed (and some we added from experience) that you can apply right now to register even more voters.
Be friendly, but also a little bit assertive.
To get any stranger to talk to you, you need to be friendly. But you also want to make it a little bit difficult for someone to get by you without engaging. The friendlier you are in that interaction, the more likely you are to get someone to register. Remember: someone is about to give you their personal information. Make it easy for them to trust you.
Go to the people.
“Duh,” I hear you all saying. Obviously, when you’re trying to find as many people to register as possible, you want to go to places where there are crowds. Be intentional about where you go and when; if you’re targeting young voters, maybe avoid the movies on Senior Citizen day. Also, be open to moving when things aren’t working, even if you’ve had luck at a certain location before.
Pair experienced voter registration canvassers with newer volunteers.
All canvassing can be a little scary at first. Voter reg canvassing can be even harder: you don’t know the person’s name, you’re probably talking to them while they’re running an errand or having fun, and you’re dealing with big crowds and not just one person. Give your more experienced volunteers a chance to flex their skills while you test their leadership and empower your new volunteers to have a rewarding experience. Everyone will be more likely to do it again!
Become friends with the security guard.
It can be your instinct to just avoid security like a pro; and hey, if you know a place doesn’t like people with clipboards, that can be the right move. But when you begin work at a new location, reach out to those in charge of security. You know how to build relationships, so do it here too! It will come in handy if/when someone complains and will hopefully give you a better chance of avoiding being escorted out of a mall by four security guards. (*Editor’s note: this definitely happened to me once.) They might even have some helpful advice about the location!
Don’t stand right in front of an entrance.
So, if befriending the security guard didn’t work out for you… don’t stand right at the doorway of any shopping center. People are more likely to get annoyed and complain and then you’re more likely to have your driver’s license scanned so you can never come back. (*Editor’s note: this also happened to me. Hey! I registered a lot of voters.)
Use the state-specific registration form.
If you’re in Florida, try to use the Florida registration form. Different states have different requirements so the national voter registration form might ask for more information than is necessary. Trust me: if you can avoid asking for a Social Security Number, you want to. If you still have to ask for those really personal things, just be calm, assertive, and friendly. Some will shy away from completing the form, but if you’re trustworthy and knowledgeable, people will be more likely to finish their registration.
Track what works and experiment.
Record your data every day! You already do this, but be sure to include details like how many forms you collected at each location, what times of day were most effective, and what phrases clicked with people more. While researchers are still conducting experiments on what works best for voter registration, you can also conduct your own.
Don’t stand behind a table.
If you’re hosting a booth at a fair, grocery store, or concert, be grateful your table gives you the authority to harass people (err, I mean, offer people an opportunity to take part in their civic duty), but don’t hide behind the table. It’s so easy to blow off someone behind a table. And, besides, you’re being human and friendly! You want to walk around and interact with people.
Don’t waste time trying to convince the inconvincible.
Some people are going to have no interest in talking to you or registering with you. That’s fine. It’s just like with persuasion—there are some you’re going to win over and some you never will. If you spend 20 minutes failing to convince this rude guy that he really needs to register, you’re missing the opportunity to talk to a bunch of people who actually want to register.
Always be ready to register someone.
While voter registration is open for your upcoming election, you should always have voter reg forms with you. And you should constantly be on the lookout for people to ask. You don’t have to just register people when you’re doing a voter reg shift. You can register someone while you’re getting gas, when you’re out having fun with your fellow organizers (just make sure you’re still in a responsible state of mind), and when you have to wait in line for anything. “Can I register someone here?” should always be the first thing you think when you step out of your car.
Voter registration has all sorts of unique challenges and no single best practice is going to be the magic bullet. That is why it’s up to you to organize your volunteers to reach as many people as possible. Each time you (nicely!) yell, “Are you registered to vote at your current address?” at a passing stranger, you are one step closer towards reaching your campaign’s registration goals.
Next time you meet with your volunteer leaders, bring this list of best practices with you and discuss with them what you can implement in your teams to be even more effective.
If you’re interested in learning more about the work the Analyst Institute does or want to discover more of their findings on voter registration—including a recent test looking at the impact of anti-Trump messaging to register Latino voters—head to their website here. The Analyst Institute keeps their trainings and materials limited to those in the progressive community, but all you need to do to gain access is to apply here.