Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

GOTV Lessons for Churches
distributed 10/31/14 - ©2014

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 races here for Governor and US Senate are both a "statistical tie" according to new opinion polls.

In this 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 is not the time to talk about details of policies or personalities. The goal in these closing days is to provide a strong nudge that will 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 and how to vote. They may offer a ride to the polling place, or provide help with an absentee ballot. They'll try to counteract every excuse for not voting. They'll stir up fear with descriptions of the dire outcomes if they don't vote and "the extremist" on other side wins.

The driving message is, "we need you" and your vote. 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, you'll probably see an effort to connect the individual's self-image with the action of voting. They are encouraged to see themselves as a voter, as 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 the countless negative ads that have been running for months. Rather than getting out the vote, attack ads are designed to reduce the vote. They 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. Get Out The Vote strategies apply to moments when a decision is essential. Hopefully, we've already done very good work with lots of education and persuasion. Most people know about the issues, so do not bury supporters in lots of information. The GOTV push is calling 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. In an election, it is very simple: Vote for or against a candidate or a ballot initiative. In a church setting, the decision might be to spend money on energy conservation, or on a church resolution to work toward "zero waste." Members can be pushed to make personal decisions: 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" very 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 ..."

We can learn a lot from political campaigns about effective things to do when we need our constituency to decide and act. Remember, though, that GOTV is just one strategy, and it is useful only in the short time before a 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, we can learn from the experts who are managing the political campaigns. See how a strong GOTV effort gets people to make choices and take actions.

With the GOTV strategy in mind, look for situations in your church or community when good preparation and an urgent, clear choice can mobilize people to act for peace with justice for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This week's Eco-Justice Notes revises and updates "Get Out the Vote" from October, 2010.

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