Get out the vote
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"Get out the vote" (or "getting out the vote"; GOTV) describes two types of political campaigns, both aimed at increasing the voter turnout in one or more elections. The first are voter registration campaigns by electoral authorities or nonpartisan organizations that attempt to motivate potential voters to register and to vote; and the other are efforts made by political parties or politicians targeted at registered voters who are expected to vote in their favour. In countries that do not have or enforce compulsory voting, voter turnout can be low, sometimes even below a third of the eligible voter pool. Campaigns typically attempt to register voters, then get them to vote, either by absentee ballot, early voting or election day voting. A GOTV effort is generally not required for elections when there are effective compulsory voting systems in place, other than perhaps to register first time voters.
In contexts of the efforts of candidates, party activities and ballot measure campaigns, "get-out-the-vote" or "GOTV" is an adjective indicating having the effect of increasing the number of the campaign's supporters who will vote in the immediately approaching election. (As a noun, "get out the vote" or "GOTV" is shorthand for either "get-out-the-vote activities" or "the previously planned get-out-the-vote portion of our campaign".)
Typically GOTV is distinct phase of the overall campaign. Tactics used during GOTV often include: telephoning or sending personalized audio messages to known supporters on the days leading up to an election (or on election day itself), providing transport to and from polling stations for supporters, and canvassing known supporters. Canvassing for the purpose of voter registration usually ceases when GOTV begins.
Other GOTV activities include literature drops early on election day or the evening before and an active tracking of eligible voters who have already voted.
The importance of get out the vote efforts increases as the total percentage of the population voting decreases. For instance, with only two-thirds of the population voting in a Canadian election it is often easier and more cost effective to ensure that a hundred supporters show up on polling day than it is to convince a hundred voters to switch support from one party to the other. This situation often leads to polarized electoral politics. A 90% turnout from a party's radical base is often better than a 50 percent turnout from both radical and moderate supporters.
GOTV can also be important in high turn-out elections when the margin of victory is expected to be close.
Voter turnout organizations
In many countries, the task of electoral authorities includes the promotion of and assisting in the registration of potential voters, and in the exercise of the right to vote. However, such efforts are not uniformly successful, and at times are partisan.
A number of nonpartisan voter turnout organizations have formed in an effort to "get out the vote". In the United States, such voter turnout organizations include the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, The Voter Participation Center and Vote.org, which attempt to motivate potential voters to register and to vote in the belief that failure of any eligible voter to vote in any election is a loss to society.
The effort of these organizations is in getting people to vote and not to promote particular candidates or political view, and a group is nonpartisan if it is not directing people how to vote. Nonpartisan groups generally do not distribute literature about candidates or causes when assisting potential voters to register to vote, and also do not focus GOTV efforts on voters who are most likely to agree with their personal views.
The traditional GOTV method used in the UK is the Reading system, developed by the Reading Constituency Labour Party and its MP Ian Mikardo for the 1945 general election. Once canvassing was performed to identify likely Labour voters, these were compiled onto 'Reading pads' or 'Mikardo sheets' featuring the names and addresses of supporters and pasted onto a large table or plank of wood. On election day these lists, with identical copies underneath, were torn off and given to GOTV campaigners. Lists of this type are sometimes referred to as Shuttleworths.
At each polling station, tellers for each party will collect the unique poll numbers of voters from their polling cards. These numbers are regularly collected from the polling stations and collated in a campaign headquarters for each ward, often referred to in the UK as a committee room. 'Promised voters' who have already voted are then crossed off the list of voters canvassed as supporting Labour. This enables campaigners to then focus more efficiently on the remainder of their supporters who have not voted. Computerisation has heralded further increases in efficiency, but nearly all subsequent methodologies can be traced back in some form to the Reading system.
Negative campaigning and voter suppression
The terminology reflects a distinction of GOTV from the complementary strategy of suppressing turnout among likely opposition voters. Political consultants are reputed to privately advise some candidates to "go negative" (attack an opponent), without any intent to sway voters toward them: this plan is to instead increase the number of eligible voters who fail to vote, because their tendency to believe "politics is inherently corrupt" has so recently been reinforced. Such turnout suppression can be advantageous where any combination of three conditions apply:
- The negative campaigning is targeted (by direct mail, telephone "push polls," or the like) on likely opposing voters, reducing the collateral damage to supporters' morale.
- The side going negative has an advantage in its supporters being steadier voters than those of its opponent.
- The side going negative has an advantage in doing effective GOTV, so that its campaign workers can get a GOTV "antidote" to more supporters "poisoned" by the negative campaign, than the opposing campaign can of their own supporters.
Get out the vote in practice
Political scientists have conducted hundreds of field experiments to learn which get out the vote tactics are effective, when, and on which types of voters. This research has revolutionized how campaigns conceive of their get out the vote efforts.
Research also shows that voting is habit-forming, as voting in one election increases the probability of voting in a future election by 10 percentage points (controlling for other factors).
The value of GOTV is unclear, but a well-organized effort probably gains a candidate on the order of half a percentage point in campaigns in the United States. In terms of mobilization, meta studies have found that door-to-door canvassing increases turnout among the contacted households with approximately 2–3 percentage points. While most experiments have been conducted in the US, recent studies have found similar or somewhat smaller effects in Europe.
The guide to grassroots elections Get Out the Vote determined that GOTV efforts yielded one vote every 15 door knocks ($31 dollars per vote), 189 pieces of direct mail ($91 dollars per vote), or 35 phone calls ($35 dollars per vote). Other studies have found that GOTV methods contribute little to none to voter turnout. One field experiment found that GOTV phone calls were largely ineffective, and that ease of access to polling locations had the largest impact on voter turnout.
There is also the argument that GOTV targets a more affluent demographic, which is already more likely to vote. Less politically engaged demographic and socioeconomic groups are sometimes neglected in GOTV efforts.
GOTV is often most effective when potential voters are told to do so "because others will ask" Voters will then go to the polls as a means of fulfilling perceived societal expectations. Paradoxically, informing voters that turnout is expecting to be high was found to increase actual voter turnout, while predicting lower turnouts actually resulted in less voters.
- Canvassing, an integral precursor to a GOTV operation.
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