You're Invited

By Kathryn Peters

A few weeks ago, a new civic nonprofit asked me if I’d come talk about problem-solving through technology. So one early Tuesday morning, I found myself in drizzly Chicago, talking about the importance of invitation and the challenge of welcoming would-be voters into American democracy.

I’m sure many of you have seen variations on this chart: this is how American adults voted. It's not even close: the plurality of eligible voters just... didn't.

It's true, this election brought out more alienation and disapproval than usual. And we might see that more people opted out for those reasons. But after every federal election, the Census bureau polls non-voters, and the answers from previous cycles are remarkably consistent: some people don't care, and others hate the system, but a majority say they meant to vote, but got caught up in work, or missed a registration deadline, or had transportation problems. In short, the process didn't work for them.

I probably don't need to tell you this, but presidential elections are the high point for participation. In midterm elections, state elections, and local elections, turnout drops even lower. As a result, when we talk about democracy in America, we’re talking about only part of America. And we know democracy works better when more people participate. The problems we see in our government stem from the fact that we aren’t all getting represented.

How do we get more people involved? Through TurboVote, Democracy Works helps voters navigate the process of tracking elections, staying registered, and casting their ballots. We reach voters mostly through colleges, universities, and non-profit organizations, building on their relationships with members and students.

In 2015, I conducted a series of user interviews to learn how people approach registering to vote. My questions were all about that process — were you online? On paper? At the DMV? And yet my notes surprised me — the answers were all about people. “My dad sat me down on my 18th birthday.” “My high school guidance counselor passed out forms.” “I saw a canvasser on campus, and he looked sad, so I went over to register and cheer him up.” (True story).

The more I listened, the more I realized that the act of invitation mattered a great deal to these voters, and that elections can feel exclusive and unfamiliar to first-time voters.

So last year, Democracy Works brought together a coalition of major corporations and non-profits around a goal of restoring participation to new highs, with a 2016 focus on trying to reach more people through as many different channels as possible, and inviting them into our democracy. 

We tried a lot of different things:

AppNexus put voter-registration reminders across its entire network. Want to Skype? Get invited to vote.

BuzzFeed ran a PSA with President Obama. Looking for a short Internet distraction? Get invited to vote.

Facebook posted news feed reminders and push notifications about voter registration, and information about early voting, and what’s on the ballot, and Election Day reminders, AND brought peer pressure to bear. Want to know what your friends are up to? Get invited to vote – and see which of them have told Facebook they're voters, too.

Snapchat went big, too. You think you've escaped the news, but then there's The Rock, telling you to vote. Or Jared Leto. Apparently people are intimidated when Jared Leto asks them to do things.

Just need your morning coffee? Starbucks is going to... invite you to vote.

But most people's strongest relationships aren't with #BRANDS (sorry, brands!). TurboVote started out on campus at colleges and universities, and their ability to connect with their students and form good civic habits are still unrivaled. So what happens if companies also think about how to connect with their employees?

Or, what about when a media company like Univision not only invites its readers and viewers in, but provides continuous, deep-dive content not just on the political horse race, but the full election process? And plasters this coverage with a constant, recurring invitation to join in and vote?

What happens when Chance the Rapper not only invites his listeners to vote, but actually throws them a concert before going to cast his vote?

"We're gonna have a very peaceful, but very lit parade"

Inviting people, it turns out, is a start. Offering a sincere welcome, one that’s rich and personal, clearly resonates more deeply yet. 

Seeking out that missing electorate and inviting them in can work, but it's only the start. From there, we still have to make sure people have the information to follow through. We have to find their motivation, keep it burning. We can't just thank them and walk away them after they register, or even after Election Day.

That commitment to participation, year in and year out, is why Democracy Works is now tracking thousands of special, state, and local 2017 elections and sending out notifications about them to our million-plus TurboVote users, and are opening up our datasets of election dates, election administrators, and much much more, to build from a quadrennial party to a perpetual neighborhood affair, and to make sure that everyone receives a personalized, custom request to come in and take part.

(If you’d like to talk about ways to incorporate an invitation to voting into your community, company, or application, don’t hesitate to contact us!)