Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Get Out The Vote
distributed 10/29/10 - ©2010

GOTV is political shorthand for "get out the vote." With just days to go before the US mid-term elections, GOTV is the dominant campaign strategy in close races for candidates and ballot issues. Volunteers and staff are pulling out all the stops to motivate their supporters.

There are valuable lessons in that strategy for those of us who want to activate church folk for eco-justice. This is a great time to watch the experts and see how they manage the last days of a hard-fought campaign. (And don't just watch -- VOTE! Those GOTV messages are right: your vote does make a difference! Can I count on you to cast your ballot before Tuesday evening?)

What are the political operatives doing? How does this strategy work, and what can we learn from it for efforts in our churches and communities?

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The get out the vote effort is visible and urgent in my Colorado home. The Senate race here is said to be the closest in the country. Polls show the contest is "too close to call." A local analyst said, "I can see that race coming down to margins of hundreds of votes."

In that sort of situation, the election will be decided by who stays home. If potential voters are disillusioned with the candidate or party they would generally support, they may not bother to vote. If they are disgusted with politics in general, they're less likely to go to the polls. The number of potential voters who don't turn out may well tip the election. All of the campaigns are worried about their folk not bothering to cast a ballot.

Get Out The Vote is implemented as a last-minute strategy. As one campaigner said this week, "Persuasion is over. It's mobilization." They don't bother to contact the strong supporters who can be counted on to do their civic duty. They don't reach out to folk who are really undecided or who might be leaning to the other side. It is all geared to the soft supporters, and those who should be supporters but are still waffling.

Banks of volunteers phone their base and walk precincts to talk to likely supporters. This isn't the time to talk about details of policies or personalities. The goal in these closing days is to provide the necessary nudge to get them to vote. A person-to-person contact might be the deciding factor that tips somebody toward voting. Callers and visitors will provide information about where to vote. They may offer a ride to the polling place, or provide help with an absentee ballot. They'll take away the excuses for not voting.

The message is, "we need your vote." There may be descriptions of the dire situation that will emerge if they don't vote and "the extremist" on other side wins. The GOTV workers will stress that the voter needs to make a choice, and the volunteers will make it clear that their side is the obvious and highly preferable option.

In a carefully scripted GOTV effort, there will be an effort to connect the individual's self-image with the action of voting. They are encouraged to see themselves as a voter, a member of an active and committed group (whether a union or tea party), or somebody with a strong interest in a critical issue. In some settings, there may be a strong appeal to support the political party ("You've been a registered X for 10 years ..."), even if the party's candidate isn't all that inspiring. People like to have their actions be congruent with how they describe themselves. Reinforcing identity can lead to action.

As the clock runs down to days and hours, the energy is focused on finding and motivating the folk who may not plan on voting, but who can be nudged with a persuasive contact.

GOTV is just the opposite of many negative ads that have been running for months. Rather than getting out the vote, attack ads may reduce the vote. Theye are designed to weaken the opponent by stirring up doubt, creating alienation, and getting people disgusted with politics. Negative ads work when potential voters feel disillusioned, hopeless and angry, and don't bother to vote. (You can fight back against negative campaigning by voting, even if you're not thrilled with the best candidate.)

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So, what are the lessons for churches? How can those of us who are trying to activate our congregations learn from this? (Of course, if you can find a special interest group willing to invest millions of dollars and highly-trained staff to support your cause, you'll have a definite advantage!)

  1. The big point is that we need to call for decisions. In many settings, we have done very good work with lots of education and persuasion. People know about the issues. Eventually, though, we have to call on them to make a choice and take some action. When that day comes, "Persuasion is over. It's mobilization."

  2. The action needs to be very precise and urgent. Vote -- for or against a ballot initiative in this election, or for the church to spend money on energy conservation, or on a church resolution to work toward "zero waste". Sign up for an energy audit. Commit to changing three light bulbs at home. Write a letter or sign a petition. Whatever the urgent issue, GOTV makes the "ask" precise and immediate.

  3. It is necessary and appropriate to focus on our base of supporters and our friends. Not everybody is going to act -- and there are some that we really don't want to act! -- so make the pitch to those who are most likely to respond in the ways that we desire. In the final days of a campaign, focus on the people who can make the most difference.

  4. Appeal to their self-identity. "Because you are committed to justice for the poor ..." is powerful (if they really do have that commitment!). "As members of this church, we care for all of God's creation." "We'll be joining with other churches in our denomination ..."

These are good and helpful things to do when we need to get people to decide and act. Remember, though, that GOTV is just one strategy, and it is useful only in the short time before an election or other specific decision. GOTV has to build on earlier efforts of education, persuasion and identity-building. It doesn't work well if the preparation hasn't been done.

As we observe -- and participate in -- the frantic activities of these days just before an election, learn from the experts who are managing the campaigns. See how a GOTV effort can get people to make choices and take actions. Then look for situations in your church or community when good preparation can and a clear choice can get people to act on the cause of peace with justice for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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