Study Looks at Ways to Increase Voter Participation

Many analysts say voter turnout will surge in next year's presidential election. Turnout increased in 2000 and 2004, but the United States lags behind many democracies in voter turnout. Voter participation remains especially low in poor and minority precincts. The result is that the the electorate is substantially whiter and wealthier than the population, but KPCC's Frank Stoltze says one California initiative is trying to change that.

Frank Stoltze: The James Irvine Foundation is studying nine non-partisan groups devoted to encouraging people to vote. Yale Political Science Professor Donald Green is leading the study. In a recent presentation of its initial findings, he said it's best to work your own neighborhood.

Donald Green (in presentation): As a group of canvassers canvass closer and closer to their homes, their effectiveness goes up and up and up, and as they get farther away, their effectiveness goes down and down and down. And that suggests quite an important insight, not only into the strategy and tactics of canvassing, but also to understanding the 2004 election.

Stoltze: That campaign year, President Bush used church-based networks of Christian conservatives in key swing state precincts to win re-election. Green said he's still examining which messages motivate what he calls "low-propensity voters" to cast ballots.

Green (in presentation): My hunch is a lot of what's said at the door is symbolic. You knock on the door. You open the door. You think, 'What, does he want to sell me something? Does he want to hurt me? Oh, he wants me to vote. Oh, well, he is signaling the importance of voting by being at my doorstep talking about voting.'

Stoltze: That's what Gloria Walton does in South L.A.'s Latino and black neighborhoods. She's lead organizer of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, one of the organizations Green is studying. Walton said it tries to educate people discouraged with the political system about what the City Council and other government bodies do, and why they're important.

Gloria Walton: And so that's why we try to make sure that with our messages, it's not just about elections, but it's utilizing this arena to exercise power. It's talking about the need for jobs in our communities. It's saying, "You know what, people need to start paying attention to the needs of South Los Angeles, and communities that look like South L.A."

Stoltze: In California, there's a wide disparity between the population and the electorate. White adults are less than half the population, but they constitute about 70% of voters. Most voters own homes and have annual household incomes above $60,000.

Among all adults, two-thirds rent, and fewer than one in five earn 60 grand a year. Analysts say these are significant differences even when you factor in the large low income, non-citizen population, which is ineligible to vote.

If the electorate did more resemble the population, who would win elections? What ballot propositions would pass?

Greg Bauman chairs the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. He conceded that political parties are not necessarily interested in making the electorate look more like the population – they're interested in winning.

Greg Bauman: And the easiest way to win elections is by finding those most likely to vote and making sure they get out to vote.

Stoltze: At the same time, Bauman said, Democrats are looking to use new technology to reach young voters who tend to vote less than older ones.

Bauman: We in the L.A. Party have been in conversations with a vendor to do a test run in next year's elections, specifically with voters under the age of 30. And it might be as simple as text messaging them in the morning and saying, "Have you voted yet? Press one for yes, two for no." And if they say no, having them automatically queued to receive a phone call.

Stoltze: One finding of the Irvine Foundation study suggested follow-up phone calls to low propensity voters tripled turnout.

Frank Martinez's job is to worry about turnout. He's L.A.'s City Clerk. Martinez said just 35% of registered voters cast ballots in the hotly contested and historic mayoral election that propelled Antonio Villaraigosa to power two years ago.

Frank Martinez: We as a society have to look very closely at ourselves when such a large portion of our society feels disconnected, and I think it's disconnected from civic participation. It's not just voting.

Stoltze: For Martinez, civic participation means involvement in schools and community based organizations, too.

Yale Political Science Professor Green said it starts with voting.

Green: 2008 is, of course, promising to be a historic election of massive proportions, but the question is, "What will happen to low propensity voters in that election? Will they be largely overlooked?" And the answer is, "Yes, unless one can convince campaigns that it's in their strategic interest to mobilize such voters, and that that kind of mobilization is indeed possible."

Stoltze: And, Green said, it's cost effective for campaigns with limited budgets. His researchers are still looking into that.

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