A Simple Solution to Low Voter Turnout—Knock at the Front Door

In communities of color where voter turnout has historically lagged, in-person interaction seems to be the most effective fix.
Canvassing Voter Turnout

Cait Taylor is one of the door-to-door canvassers who helped complete Operation Spectra. Here, she knocks on the door of a Seattle home as part of a separate project. Photo courtesy of Washington CAN.

When she was 10 years old, Hamdi Mohamed watched her mother strap on a backpack and head to school for the first time to learn English. Even on school nights, they would stay up until midnight studying hundreds of civics questions for her mother’s U.S. citizenship test. Her mother would constantly remind Mohamed that when she turned 18, she too would be able to vote.

“Politicians won’t address immigrant and refugee issues if you don’t vote.”

Her mother’s passionate civic engagement has stuck with Mohamed, a Somalian refugee who immigrated to the United States when she was 3 years old. Having graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a degree in law, societies, and justice, Mohamed now knocks on Seattle-area doors for the congressional campaign of Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state senator and Indian immigrant who is running for the state’s seventh district.

But Mohamed’s interest in canvassing extends beyond getting Jayapal to Congress. She hopes to encourage immigrant communities to head to the voting booth.

“Politicians won’t address immigrant and refugee issues if you don’t vote,” Mohamed says she tells the people she speaks to at the door. “When you do vote is when you hold them accountable.”

Pramila Jayapal speaks to canvasser Hamdi

Hamdi Mohamed (third from left) listens to state Senator Pramila Jayapal (center) brief a team of organizers and volunteers. Mohamed is part of a team of canvassers working on Jayapal's campaign for Congress.

Photo by Pramila for Congress

Voter turnout has historically lagged in communities of color, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While 2012 marked the first time the rate of Black voter participation surpassed the rate of White voters with 66 percent participating, Hispanic and Asian voter participation hovered around 48 percent.

But some groups say they’ve found a solution: door-to-door canvassing. From dismantling prejudices against transgender individuals to engaging voters of color, researchers have found that in-person connections can sway opinions.

“I think we just stumbled into something big,” says Mauricio Ayon, political director at Washington Community Action Network, an organization that strives for racial, social, and economic justice.

That’s because Washington CAN, along with the Washington Environmental Council, recently completed an experiment on how door-to-door canvassing affected voter turnout in south Seattle, which has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the county—as well as some of the highest diversity.

The precincts they canvassed are more than 50 percent people of color. The group found that 82 percent of registered voters who consistently voted over the last three years in these neighborhoods identify as White. The experiment, named Operation Spectra, moved chronic nonvoters—or people who hadn’t voted in the eight most recent major elections—to vote in the November 2015 election 13.7 percent higher than other diverse precincts Washington CAN used as a control group.

The most effective method was a personal visit with a follow-up postcard reminding the resident to vote.

This isn’t the first time canvassing has proven to push communities of color to the ballot boxes. But it is the first time canvassing has motivated non-participating registered voters to show up at the ballot boxes. Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College, has conducted dozens of studies on canvassing and is co-author of the book Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns. Her past experiments failed to sway chronic nonvoters.

“If [this trend] repeats, then it’s a huge change to what political scientists know about mobilizing nonvoters,” Michelson says.

This is important in an election in which presidential candidates like Donald Trump are making racist and degrading comments about immigrants, refugees, and people of color. With the electorate now composed of 31 percent people of color, up from 29 percent in the 2012 election, mobilizing these voters is more crucial than ever.

The secret, Michelson says, often lies in the quality of the canvassers and whether they can make strong connections with potential voters. From studying dozens of communities of color from around the nation, Michelson has found that many of these voters don’t feel welcome in U.S. politics.

But when canvassers come to the door, the mindset shifts, Michelson says. “Now you’re getting the message of, ‘My voice is valued, voting is for me, I’m being included.’”

Operation Spectra teams knocked on thousands of doors in south Seattle neighborhoods, testing whether pamphlets, mailed postcards, or in-person visits would best persuade these diverse communities to vote. This cost $100,000 to execute.

By far, the most effective method was a personal visit with a follow-up postcard reminding the resident to vote. Of the people who received this visit, 41 percent voted—14 percent more than the precincts in the control group. Yet politicians favor leaflets as the most popular (and cheapest) method of attempting to attract voters. This method increased voter turnout by only 1.3 to 2 percent in Seattle.

Personal contact means a lot, especially for immigrant and refugee populations, says Joaquin Uy, ethnic media and communications specialist for Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

Both he and Mohamed have seen that countries where immigrants migrate from emphasize personal relationships in business, government, and civics, whereas the United States focuses on electronic communication.

Yet when Mohamed knocks on doors (sometimes 200 in a weekend), she sees that personal conversations affect voting habits—and that it’s not enough. These voters need more. Sometimes they can’t buy a stamp to mail a ballot, can’t read election materials printed in English, or fear the repercussions of voting. When Mohamed visited Somalia in 2012, a member of parliament was shot for how he voted, she said.

“I tell people, ‘If you need me to come pick up your ballot, I will come pick up your ballot,’” says Mohamed, who has heard single mothers say they don’t have time to drop off their ballots.

The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, concerned with uncovering and eliminating these barriers, is conducting a study that, it claims, will be first in recent years to collect data on immigrant and refugee voting patterns in a major city.

Mohamed wants to bridge the voting gap in her community, especially as she remembers what it took to secure both Black and women voters their voices at the ballot boxes.

“Through my education, I’ve learned the power of voice,” Mohamed says. “I’m committed to real democracy.”