One of the clear takeaways from the 2020 elections is the impact of absentee and early voting. Traditionally the preferred method of choice for senior citizens and snowbirds, absentee voting, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic had a substantial impact on when and how a record number of voters participated in the election process.
In states like Michigan, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, absentee voting accounted for a significant bump in voter turnout. More than 3.2 million voters in Michigan voted using absentee ballots, or 57% of all ballots cast in Michigan; four times as many voters in Connecticut voted absentee in 2020 versus 2016, and New Hampshire saw a 10% increase in absentee voting. Even states like Texas, where 57.3% of registered Texas voters had already cast their in-person and absentee ballots before the November 3, 2020, General Election.
What does this change in voter behavior mean? Is this a one-time occurrence linked to coronavirus or does this represent a seed change in how and when Americans vote? Here’s what we do know and the lessons campaigns should apply to future elections.
Get the Timing Right
With the passing of legislation in several states, including Michigan, you can choose to register absentee forever. We can begin to conclude that many Americans will choose to continue voting this way. After all, it’s fast, there is no more waiting in long lines on Election Day, no taking time off work or hunting for a sitter. You can simply make your choices and drop your signed and completed ballot in the mail or in a secure lockbox. This also allows research into your choices online, something that’s especially helpful when reading through long ballot proposals. In our instant gratification, 24/7 world, voting when convenient has endless appeal.
Knowing this, the question then becomes, when should a campaign start to reach out to prospective voters? The answer is as soon as possible, or even now. Now, as in the deep canvassing that needs to be part of an off-cycle strategy, linked to getting to know your community, their interests, and concerns sooner, to better craft a successful campaign and impactful tactics.
Fundraising efforts need to start sooner, as the timeline for your campaign’s ground game has gotten longer. The timing for sending out mailers should be linked to when absentee ballots drop. You should begin planning a layered strategy that incorporates learnings for the 2020 elections and is open to whatever the next campaign curveball may be.
Therefore, it’s best to start early, to secure the human capital, and raise the funds to sustain campaign infrastructure, for everything from data to websites to paid campaign staff, and dedicated volunteers. Take the time to train and develop your team, getting out the word about your campaign equals getting out the vote for your candidate or ballot initiative. Leave room for more spontaneous actions, but those can only happen if there is a solid strategy, a foundation if you will in place.
And all that additional time equals money. That means fundraising starts sooner, as soon as a candidate has been identified and committed to run for office or when a ballot initiative is put forth.
Crafting Messaging to a Varied Audience
Here’s another factor to consider. The 2020 elections saw a record number of new voters, many of whom chose to vote absentee. Many belong to Gen Z, others are BIPOC voters eager to have their voices heard for the first time. This shift in who is voting means future campaigns should focus on having segmented messaging, targeted at varied audiences.
While digital messaging may be more cost-effective, a well-thought-out strategy will also contain elements of more traditional campaigning. Varied tactics for a diverse audience are going to be essential moving forward.
That messaging will need to be tested, retested, and evaluated throughout the campaign. Educational and information-packed messages should be interspersed throughout, with more conversational messaging mixed in. The goal is to build a grassroots community that grows throughout the election cycle and acts as campaign advocates.
Campaigns will still be able to use precision geo-targeted messaging as potential voters drop their kids off at school or shop at the local supermarket. Promoting your cause or candidate to absentee voters requires layers of interaction, sustained over a longer period.
Timing and messaging aren’t the only campaign factors affected by the rise in absentee voting, how we communicate with voters changed as well. Coronavirus moved canvassing online, to text or over Zoom. Live Streamed virtual fundraisers were enormously successful and should be front and center during any kind of engagement. The timeline for campaigning has gotten longer and the need for constant cash flow has grown. It’s more than “plan for the worst, but hope for the best”; a long-term fundraising strategy with layered, impactful tactics is crucial to every campaign.
So which platform is best? There is no singular correct answer, once again it all goes back to the audience you are trying to reach and the messaging. Know your demographics and tailor your messaging accordingly. This holds from top-of-ticket races to down-ticket non-partisan candidates to bond and millage proposals. And take time to refine your messaging throughout a campaign. While you will be introducing and reintroducing yourself and your cause to new followers, you’ll want to keep the messing fresh and timely, and factual.
Change is Constant and Inevitable
The need and popularity of absentee voting aren’t likely to fade away. While it may take longer under current election laws to verify and count absentee ballots, anything that makes it easier for Americans to vote is here to stay. It’s up to campaigns to plan strategies, implement tactics that take the longer lead time into account, start their deep canvassing ground game sooner, prepare for the increased campaign costs associated with reaching absentee and in-person voters, and speak to a more varied voter audience.