Commentary: Friend-to-friend pledge boosts voter turnout in Intermountain West

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) 'I Voted' sticker are available to people who vote at the Salt Lake County complex during primary election day on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Across the U.S., nonpartisan voter-turnout efforts increasingly focus on sparking people to get their friends to vote. This focus is informed by research finding that learning a friend voted boosts their peers’ likelihood of casting a ballot and being encouraged to vote by a friend increases a person’s turnout by eight percentage points.

In fact, experts Don Green and Alan Gerber of Columbia and Yale say, “the frontier of get-out-the-vote research” involves “recruiting people to be responsible for turning out a small group of friends.”

To encourage Montanans to get their friends to vote, the nonpartisan organization Forward Montana piloted a pledge program before a Pearl Jam concert in Missoula last August. With three local nonprofit groups, volunteers canvassed a pre-concert block party outside Washington-Grizzly Stadium and asked people, “Will you pledge to get three friends to vote?”

In two hours, the volunteers got 3,252 of the 10,000 attendees to complete the pledge, which involved sharing their cellphone number and the first names of three friends they would encourage.

According to Forward Montana’s Kiah Abbey, “Many volunteers were initially hesitant to ask block party attendees to get their friends to vote, but people were jazzed to say, ‘Yes’.”

The positive engagement didn’t stop there. Months later, when Forward Montana sent text messages to each pledger reminding them to mobilize their friends, tons replied back saying they made sure their trio voted.

“Compared to other texts we sent, these messages got 10 times the response rates,” Abbey told me. “We know voters are busy and a gentle reminder to ping their friends appears to be something busy people are excited to receive.”

And it appears this simple pledge and text message program had a strong impact. According to TargetSmart (a data firm), 72.4 percent of these individuals were projected to vote in last November’s election. However, 94.8 percent went on to cast a ballot. While numerous factors could explain this 22 percentage point boost in voter turnout, this rise is suggestive that Forward Montana’s program had a strong effect.

While Forward Montana deployed old fashioned clipboard sign ups to activate friend-to-friend voting messengers, the friend-to-friend voter turnout efforts outside of Montana centered mostly on technological-based solutions, like mobilize phone applications.

According to The New York Times, these apps “pull public information from government records” and let users “snoop on which of your friends voted in past elections and ... prod them to go to the polls by sending them scripted messages like ‘You gonna vote?’”

Despite their technological sophistication, these apps got only modest use. For instance, it appears that the most downloaded app saw a mere 841 users within a single congressional district over five months. In other words, in two hours Forward Montana achieved triple the traction in its congressional district than other friend-to-friend voter turnout efforts did over several months.

“In Montana we give one another a helping hand. Our pilot test suggests this friendliness extends to voting, as well," Abbey told me. "We think having non-partisan organization go out and generally promote voting – especially when it’s just vote, and not for a specific candidate – is a great way to make sure more people’s voices are heard in our democracy. Plus, one nice thing about the way we implemented this program is that we can continue to remind these people to get their friends to vote in future elections,”

Moving forward, Forward Montana plans to explore opportunities to spark youth to engage in other types of bite-sized civic actions, like getting three friends to call their state legislature. If this works, we might again learn that nurturing civic engagement rests in marrying a small splash of technology with good old-fashioned relationships.

Robert Reynolds | Forward Montana Foundation board member

Robert Reynolds, a Montana native now living in Washington, D.C., is a behavioral scientist, a Forward Montana Foundation board member and a co-founder of VoteTripling.org.