Encouraging more eligible voters to register and participate in elections could be as simple as mailing them a postcard, finds new research led by the University of Maryland Department of Government and Politics.
In a study published in Political Behavior, Professor Michael Hanmer and colleagues examined an effort in Pennsylvania ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Targeting citizens in the state Department of Transportation database who were not registered to vote, Pennsylvania election officials mailed out more than 2.2 million postcards with information about registering online and an impending registration deadline.
When comparing against a control group that did not receive the postcard, researchers discovered the effort led to a nearly 1% boost in voter registrations—roughly 23,000 new registrants—a significant number in a swing state like Pennsylvania. Moreover, roughly 85% percent of the newly registered voters turned out at the polls in November 2016. President Donald Trump won the state by fewer than 45,000 votes
“That these findings came during the highly competitive 2016 election in Pennsylvania suggests there are large portions of the population that aren't being reached by the candidates and campaigns,” said Hanmer, who is also the researcher director for UMD’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. “States have a wealth of information they can leverage to contact eligible citizens and engage with them. With in-person methods of mobilization largely unavailable during the pandemic, postcards might have even larger effects now.”
Hanmer and colleagues also found that the Pennsylvania postcard campaign was most effective in prompting younger voters to register, accounting for a nearly 2% increase in voter registration among 18- to 21-year-olds. The results upend the popular narrative that young people are unreachable or can only be recruited through social media, researchers said.
“I hope this research is used by election administrators to increase turnout all over the country,” said Jared McDonald, GVPT Ph.D. ’19, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and co-author on the research. “One reason people don't vote is because nobody asked them to or walked them through the registration and voting process. But voting is a right and it should be easy. We show that, with minimal effort from the state, the barrier to registration can be overcome.”
Alauna Safarpour, a doctoral student in the UMD Department of Government and Politics, and Lisa Bryant from California State University, Fresno were also co-authors on the Political Behavior paper.