Should Your Campaign Bother with Voter Registration Drives?

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Many candidates have asked me whether registering new voters during their campaign will help them win.

Voter registration drives are very similar to absentee ballot programs in that they may be helpful to your campaign if done the right way…  but focusing on voter registration drives may not be necessary or wise, because of the the investment of time and resources they require in order to be successful.

If your campaign only has the time, money, and manpower to do one or the other, do an absentee voter program.  If you can do both, fine, but make sure you are doing the absentee voter program well before you think about starting a voter registration campaign.

Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Voter Registration Drives

As the name suggests, a voter registration drive is an effort to register new voters.  This strategy has definite downsides:

First, remember that you can’t tell people how to register, or how to vote, and you can’t ask people who they are going to vote for and then only register those who support your candidate, so there’s a real risk that you may be registering more voters who are going to vote for your opponent than for your own candidate.  (We’ll talk more about how to avoid this later).

Second, be aware that voter registration efforts take a lot of time.  As with anything in your campaign, your only questions when deciding whether to implement a campaign tactic are: (a) will this help me win? and (b) if I spend this amount of time and money elsewhere, will it help me win even more?  Question (b) is really the important one here – if you spend 40 man hours and $500 on a voter registration drive, would it be better, from a time and resource management perspective, to invest that time and money into another tactic, like going door to door or printing and delivering more yard signs?

Bear in mind that I am not suggesting voter registration drives are a bad thing, and I certainly support all of the non-partisan groups and good-government organizations that hold massive registration campaigns.  Getting people to register is a good thing… the only question, given the limited amount of time you have in your campaign, is… should your campaign be the organization that runs an effort like this?

There are, of course, some pros to running a campaign-sponsored voter registration drive, including new voters for your candidate (if you run the campaign right) and an opportunity to communicate with voters before your opponent even knows that they are registered to vote.

The Impact of Motor Voter

It is important to note that with the passage of the Motor Voter law in the 1990’s, registering to vote in the United States has never been easier, and people now have opportunities to register all of the time – so voter registration drives have been garnering less and less attention (and fewer and fewer registrations) ever since.

Beware of Legal Issues

Before starting a voter registration drive or a registration campaign, check with your local board of elections to find out what the laws and regulations are that govern voter registration in your state and locality.  Some areas may have rules prohibiting who can run registration drives, what kind of information you can keep, and where new registrations should be mailed.

Voter Registration Drives: Seeking Out Your Voters

As we noted above, one of the major problems with running a voter registration drive is that you don’t have any way of knowing, for sure, that you are registering more voters who will support you than those who will support your candidate.  This is important because, if you’re going to spend time doing registrations when you could be doing other activities, you need to be sure that the registration time is time well spent in helping your candidate win.

Never run a registration drive without considering your voter targeting.

Luckily, there is a solution: our old friend targeting.  Dust off the targeting data you completed for your campaign… and look at the precincts that are most likely to vote for you – those where you are expecting the highest percentage of votes.  These precincts are called your party’s “base precincts.”

In politics, the best predictor of future activity is past performance.  That means that you can extrapolate information from your targeting to determine where to hold voter registration activities.  If, in your targeting, you determined that you are likely to receive 60% of the vote in the precinct, you can assume that any new voters you register are going to continue that trend… that is, 60% will vote for your candidate, 40% will not.  So, you can assume that for every 10 people you register, you will gain 2 net votes (6 votes for you minus 4 votes against you equals 2 net votes).

This correlation can be assumed, but is not assured.  You’ll need to track your registrations carefully.  If you’re allowed by law to turn in the voter registration cards and to record the information, then analyze the trends.  If you’re a Democrat and you’re doing voter registration in a precinct where you are assuming that you’ll receive 65% of the vote, yet 60% of the registrations that are coming in are for newly registered Republicans, double check your targeting math and assumptions, and re-tool your voter registration activities as needed.

Voter Registration and Your Grassroots Activities

If your campaign decides to do voter registration, this tactic should form a part of your overall grassroots activities, and can often be incorporated into them.  For example, one of the best ways to get new registrations is to go door-to-door.  But if you’re going to go door–to-door to register people, you may as well tie this in to your campaign’s overall door-to-door efforts.

Have your door knockers hand out literature and talk to voters at homes where people are already registered, and then knock on doors where people aren’t registered to get them signed-up.  Remember, only add the registration component into your best targeted districts.  If you’re going door-to-door in a swing precinct, you’re probably not going to want to add in a registration component.

Also, be wary of doing registration activities at a table set up outside a local grocery store, at the train station, or in a mall.  The reason is targeting.  While the location itself may be inside of a targeted precinct, you have no way of knowing if the people that are shopping there or getting onto the train actually live in the targeted precinct.  When you’re knocking on doors, you can be pretty sure that you know where new registrants live.

Staying in Touch with Newly Registered Voters

As I mentioned above, one of the biggest reasons to do voter registration drives is that you get a leg up on your competition by allowing you to communicate with a voter whom your opponent doesn’t even know is registered to vote.

Because your opponent is likely not going door to door or sending out direct mail to people who aren’t registered to vote, and because voter registration data takes time to be updated and often those updates aren’t even ordered by the campaign after they get their initial data from the board of elections, you are in a great position to have that voter all to yourself.

Again, be careful and check the law – are you allowed to make copies of the voter registration cards that you get filled out?  Are you allowed to record the data?  Are you even allowed to collect the cards, or do you have to hand them out and ask people to mail them back in on their own after they have filled them out?  Find out!   Rules and laws vary by country, state, county, and town.

If you are allowed to record the information or make copies, do so – write down the person’s name and address, and add them to your “new voter” file or database.  Then, stay in touch with them.  Send them a letter from the candidate welcoming them as a new voter.  Send them campaign mailings and info, invite them to events, send them newsletters and direct mail – remember, unlike almost any other class of voter, these new voters will likely be getting information and mailings only from your campaign.  It’s a great opportunity to break through the clutter, if you can.

One final note: if your campaign is collecting voter registration cards and is then supposed to turn them in to the board of elections, be sure you do!  Keeping them, losing them, or holding on to them for more than a day or two is not only probably illegal and definitely unethical, but it also looks very, very unprofessional and is in poor form.


Photo Credit: ErikHersman


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