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Engaging In Elections: Connecting Votes to Issues

August 4, 2014
Shannon Manning, Associate Vice President, Advocate Engagement

DDC Advocacy’s Tom Benjamin recently posted on our blog about the value of leveraging third-party advocates to help make issues a priority for candidates. Today’s post takes a step back to address how you can get your advocates to go from advocating in the policy process to advocating in the context of an election.

The November elections will be here in three short months, so if you haven’t started thinking about how to engage your advocates, now is definitely the time to start.

Many issue advocacy programs run into key challenges on this front:

Your advocate base may skew conservative or liberal, but you can’t be too openly partisan.
As Tom discussed, there’s little chance you’re going to get candidates to commit publicly to a position.
You need to maintain relationships on both sides of the aisle—and you don’t want to alienate portions of your advocate base—so you can’t publicly endorse specific candidates.
Your election efforts have to cut through the general barrage of ads, mail, phone calls, emails, social media, rallies, and yard signs that advocates will be facing.
Even though it’s challenging, engaging your advocates in the elections as advocates is a critical element of their development. Voting is the most fundamental form of advocacy, and helping advocates connect their voting behavior to issues can not only enhance their election participation but make them better, more committed advocates overall. You’ll be empowering them to advocate at all stages of the political process.

Some Tips for Making Advocacy Program GOTV Efforts Successful

Start early—Engagement is all about momentum, and it’s better to introduce advocates to your GOTV effort a few months before the election so you can have a real conversation about it. Start early deploying messaging and information that will help your advocates think of themselves as issue voters.
Be clear about your objectives—We’ve found it’s better to confront the red flags rather than leaving advocates to suspect your motives. Emphasize that you want advocates to participate in the elections because election outcomes ultimately lead to policy outcomes. State up front that your organization is not endorsing specific candidates, supporting a particular party, or trying to manipulate how advocates vote.
Direct advocates to non-partisan resources that can help inform their vote—While you may not be able to focus on specific candidates, there are a number of resources that will help advocates understand where candidates really stand on issues: sites like votesmart.org and ontheissues.org offer interactive tools that can give advocates new insights without telling them how to vote.
Help advocates see beyond partisan politics—Many advocates don’t realize that making their views known can be powerful regardless of which candidates they support. Beyond voting, they can be encouraged to send messages to candidates or submit letters to the editors of local papers encouraging all their candidates to support your issues.
Remind them of key deadlines and voting requirements so they’re prepared—It’s always a good idea to make participating in the elections easy, and events like on-site voter registration drives can be wonderful opportunities for raising the profile of your advocacy program. But you can accomplish a lot simply by keeping advocates informed of election deadlines, voter eligibility requirements, what to do if they’ve moved since the last election, and so on. DDC Advocacy offers turnkey GOTV tools for making this kind of information available, but there are a multitude of public and private resources available.
Give advocates specific things to do—This might take the form of an election checklist or toolkit, in which advocates can complete several simple tasks, such as: register or verify registration, find their polling place location, share a GOTV message on social media, volunteer at a local campaign office or post a sign in their yard, commit to learn about their candidates’ positions, and—most important—vote, whether they vote early or on Election Day. Breaking participation down in this way not only makes it more manageable but also gives advocates a goal to strive for beyond simply completing a ballot. There are also more advanced things you can ask your advocates to do during an election, such as ask questions about your issue at a candidate debate or town hall; the important thing is to calibrate your asks to fit the culture of your advocacy program.
Advocacy GOTV Efforts Matter

Voter behavior over the past three decades indicates many voters are simply feeling too disenfranchised or too apathetic even to show up at the polls. Since 1984, general election turnout in presidential election years has hovered between 50 and 60 percent, with a high of 61.6 percent of eligible voters in 2008 and a low of 51.7 percent in 1996. In midterm election years, turnout has remained at about 40 percent, with a high of 41.1 percent in 1994 and a low of 38.1 percent in 1984 and 1998.[1]

These trends are not new—turnout has been in the same ranges since the Great Depression. But in today’s advocacy culture your efforts to connect election engagement to issue advocacy can benefit not just you and your advocates but the democratic process as a whole.

[1] http://www.electproject.org/national-1789-present

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