Closing participation gaps and uncovering barriers to doing so has long been a focus of CIRCLE’s work. A new report by Nonprofit Vote, produced in partnership with CIRCLE, demonstrated the positive impact of intervention by nonprofit organizations on voter turnout in the 2014 election—impact that was especially large for young people and other underrepresented groups that generally have low voting rates. This research highlights a promising intervention to close stubborn gaps in youth opportunity and electoral participation.
The report, Engaging New Voters: The Impact of Nonprofit Voter Outreach on Client and Community Turnout is based on an analysis of 129 nonprofits that conducted 2014 voter engagement work in nine states. Notably, the states studied ranged from battlegrounds with competitive races to those safely “red” or “blue” like New York and Texas. Across all states, the research found that those who registered or signed a pledge to vote in 2014 with the aid of nonprofit staff or volunteers turned out to vote at higher rates than other registered voters across all demographic groupings.
The effect of this “reverse door-knocking,” meaning outreach at community centers, hospitals, and schools which residents visit for various reasons, was particularly strong for youth. These “nonprofit voters” ages 18-29 went to the polls at a 28 percent higher rate than all young people in that age group. The nonprofit outreach also had a greater impact on Black and Asian voters, and on voters from low-income backgrounds. In fact, individuals with the lowest expected voting rates, as calculated by a “voter propensity” measure, cast a ballot at more than twice the rate when they were engaged by a nonprofit.
One reason may be that “reverse door-knocking” is especially important for young people, those who move often, and those who have lower income because they are more likely to live in the types of dwellings that are less likely to receive door-knocking such as apartments or homes in high-crime neighborhoods. Reverse door-knocking is also distinct from most traditional canvassing strategies, in that the potential voters interact with someone whom they know and trust, such as their service providers. Research has previously shown that these personal interactions are particularly effective with youth.
Our research also shed light on some of the strategic considerations for election outreach by nonprofits; showing, for example, that regional partnerships and early planning are essential in coordinating efforts and maximizing impact. The most successful nonprofits in the study received resources and training from state and national organizations and reached out to a wide range of local organizations that touch many and diverse community members. The study also found that successful organizations started early to train staff on nonpartisan voter education and registration, and sometimes piloted their project well ahead of registration deadlines, while less successful organizations started in August or later.
The “Engaging New Voters” report reaffirms the value and effectiveness of outreach and meaningful interactions with potential voters, and the critical role that place-based nonprofits can play in these efforts. It offers a roadmap for organizations to pursue their own electoral engagement strategies as the 2016 presidential election draws near.