By Jill Brownfield, with Mike Ward contributing
When I first heard about our 80 percent voter turnout moonshot goal, the political scientist in me raised her eyebrows. I had only been with Democracy Works for a couple of months and my deep-rooted belief in our mission was just a seedling.
This skeptical reaction was, and remains, a common one, but we chose 80 percent precisely because it is such a bold goal. It has been a little over a year since that goal was established. I can now see a clear path to achieving that goal, and I’m not alone. In one year, more than 50 corporations and nonprofit organizations have signed on to the TurboVote Challenge, a community that brings corporate and nonprofit leaders together to increase U.S. voter turnout.
While Challenge members are active in voter engagement year round, one of the most critical pieces of the work has been our annual symposium. In the summers of July 2016 and June 2017, Democracy Works and Challenge members gathered in person for a voter engagement summit to learn from one another and plan for the future. There are three major takeaways that I’d like to share from our most recent convening, graciously hosted by the Democracy Fund and sponsored by Facebook and Starbucks.
First, anyone working on long-term plans to influence voter engagement should start that work early. There’s a tendency in some sectors, including corporate America, to create a new voter engagement campaign from scratch mere weeks before an election, and even then, usually only in presidential election years. If we’re going to dramatically increase turnout, we can’t start from zero every two or four years.
Second, there’s a lot of knowledge in the voter engagement space, but the one thing we know for sure is that there’s still much to learn. Anyone looking to make a difference can have an effect by doing a few things: starting small, intentionally iterating to find what works, and sharing their experiences with others in this community. In fact, sharing best practices is precisely how we build a broader understanding of what works and what doesn’t — we learn as we go.
The third takeaway came from Austin Belali of the Youth Engagement Fund, who discussed how every generation has stretched the “We” in “We the People.” Gaining voting rights over time — expanding the right to non-land owners, non-whites, and women — has been a long, hard-fought journey. The TurboVote Challenge is an opportunity to contribute to the growth of the “We” in our time. “We” are making history.
Expanding the “We” via the TurboVote Challenge is no simple feat: one size does not fit all when implementing a project of this depth and breadth. The Challenge members have diverse resources and constraints. In order to succeed in our moonshot goal while respecting the diversity of organizations involved, Democracy Works creates a unifying message with guide rails, while also allowing for a wide range of campaign implementations. Our partners have done a tremendous job of sussing out what works for them and their audiences.
Even with all the adaptation and learning along the way, one thing remains constant and has become a bit of a manifesto in the Challenge: we have to increase engagement in every election, every year. From the very beginning, we have focused on increasing turnout in federal elections, but also in state, local, and municipal elections. Increasing participation across the board is crucial considering we have seen turnout at the local level sink as low as 8 percent. Simply calling the problem a crisis is, arguably, an understatement.
The real outcomes in 2016 exceeded our expectations by leaps and bounds. Assuming a market rate of ten dollars per voter registration, TurboVote Challenge partners generated $23 million in voter registration value. They accomplished this in a variety of ways, from ad targeting to social media, and from Starbucks cup sleeves to broadcast calls to action.
Now, on to the next phase. The TurboVote Challenge will refine its approach in 2017 with a goal of increasing voter turnout by 5 percentage points in the 2018 midterms (over the 2014 midterms). If we achieve that goal, we’re well on our way to achieving the moonshot described at the start: 80 percent voter turnout.