As with many areas of life, the coronavirus pandemic has already disrupted the very foundation of our democracy: elections. Political campaigns have struggled to adjust to the new realities of campaigning in a time of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. Senate campaigns, for example, have suspended door-to-door canvassing and are transitioning to being almost entirely online.
Getting individuals to vote, whether in person or by mail, is one of the central concerns of most campaigns. Many of them have taken a scientific approach to learning which strategies for increasing turnout they should prioritize, employing randomized evaluations to compare the relative effectiveness of different tactics. One theme that emerges from this literature is that in-person interactions, whether through personal canvassing or social Election Day “festivals,” are among the most effective means of getting out the vote. With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic engendering protracted periods of social distancing and a number of elections on the horizon, however, these in-person interactions may no longer be viable from a public health standpoint. How, then, can campaigns effectively engage voters while engaging in such distancing?
Recent research may shed light on a powerful solution to get-out-the-vote efforts even when in-person contact is difficult to achieve: leveraging preexisting personalized social connections. The nonpartisan group Turnout Nation uses a model of promoting voter participation that relies on contacts between people who belong to the same social network, such as friends, families, acquaintances or neighbors. In this model, individuals called “captains” commit to identifying and encouraging at least 10 people they know to vote. The captains, in turn, recruit other captains, thereby increasing the reach of these efforts even further.
Rigorous research demonstrates that this approach can be substantially more effective than traditional efforts. Turnout Nation has released our randomized evaluation of its model, which yielded some of the largest impacts on turnout of any experimentally tested get-out-the-vote study in recent memory. Our experiment, conducted with 773 individuals in municipal elections in four different states, showed that the estimated effect of the captain model was four times the size of the average door-to-door canvassing effort. This result is partly attributable to the fact that fewer than 30 percent of individuals typically come to the door in in-person canvassing campaigns. And therein lies the power of the captain model: while it is increasingly difficult to contact strangers, it is increasingly easy to contact one’s friends and acquaintances.
Leveraging social networks allows for considerable flexibility in the medium of communication. As shelter-in-place orders go into effect around the world, people are getting creative with ways to stay in touch remotely, from general socializing to keeping educators and students in contact. Similarly, the barriers to mobilize around voting behavior within one’s social network are minimal: the captain model shows that phone calls, e-mails and text messages between friends can be a powerful way of motivating voting.
While the intuition that one is more likely to be swayed by friends than strangers is compelling and easy to extend to workplaces, congregations and schools, more research is needed on the efficacy of using social networks for get-out-the-vote efforts in nonmunicipal elections and at scale. Many election officials and voting rights organizations have already noted how the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need to ensure all voters can safely vote by mail rather than at the polls. At a time when the very act of voting may not be possible in person, it is essential that we test out novel ways of achieving the civic objective of people exercising their franchise.
Editor’s Note (3/27/20): This article was edited after posting to correct the author’s byline.