Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Get out the Vote-by-Mail? A Randomized Field Experiment Testing the Effect of Mobilization in Traditional and Vote-by-Mail Precincts

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Get out the Vote-by-Mail? A Randomized Field Experiment Testing the Effect of Mobilization in Traditional and Vote-by-Mail Precincts

Article excerpt


This study extends previous field experimental research on turnout by considering how institutional context moderates the effect of mobilization. Taking advantage of a setting in which some registrants are assigned to vote by mail, the authors find that a door-to-door mobilization campaign has a larger effect on the participation of those who vote at polling places than on registrants assigned to cast mail ballots, but only among individuals whose voting behavior is most likely to be shaped by extrinsic social rewards. The authors conclude that there may be payoff for election reform strategies that tap into voting's social rewards.


voter turnout, field experiments, election reform, vote by mail

Does the effectiveness of a get out the vote (GOTV) contact depend on the method by which a voter casts a ballot? This study investigates whether those who must vote by mail are more responsive to a door-to-door mobilization campaign than voters who live in traditional precincts with polling places. Following pioneering work by Gerber and Green (2000; Green and Gerber 2008), a series of field experiments has shown that the effectiveness of nonpartisan GOTV campaigns hinges on the medium of communication (telephone, mail, or door-to-door canvassing) as well as the message that is delivered (Gerber and Green 2000; Green, Gerber, and Nickerson 2003; Gerber, Green, and Shachar 2003; Nickerson 2007; Gerber, Green, and Larimer 2008). These studies all treat institutional context as constant, however, by assuming that everyone votes the same way. State and local experiments with a variety of forms of convenience voting have resulted in over 30 percent of Americans casting their ballots outside of a precinct polling place-by mail, phone, fax, or computer-or ahead of Election Day at an early voting center (Gronke et al. 2008). In 2008, 42 percent of Californians voted by mail (Bowen 2008). We do not know whether the forms of outreach that have been shown to be successful in reaching polling place voters have the same effect when individuals vote through alternative means. If they do not have the same effect, then campaigns may need to alter their strategies to mobilize nonpolling- place voters.

Our research asks whether reforms in the process of voting affect how people respond to mobilization drives. To test for this interaction between treatment and context, we take advantage of a natural experiment that is conducted in every California election. First employed by Kousser and Mullin (2007), this research design compares voter behavior in traditional precincts to behavior in precincts that county registrars have assigned to vote entirely by mail. Because individuals do not self-select into a precinct type, voters in the two types of precincts are similar in their demographic characteristics and propensity to turn out. Consequently, this design allows comparison between similar types of voters taking part in the same election, who differ only in their method of voting. To gauge the effects of door-to-door canvassing, we layer a field experiment over this natural experiment, randomly assigning fifty traditional and fifty vote-by-mail precincts in San Diego County to be walked by paid GOTV canvassers in the days leading up to the November 2008 general election.

We use this hybrid of a randomized and a natural experiment to study whether the method of voting shapes the effectiveness of door-to-door GOTV campaigns. Vote-by-mail (VBM) advocates emphasize the ways in which mail balloting reduces the costs of voting (Karp and Banducci 2000, 2001; Gronke et al. 2008). Yet along with reducing costs, VBM removes a potential benefit of voting by making the act less socially visible (Funk 2010). Recent work demonstrates the importance of social accountability in boosting voter participation (Gerber, Green, and Larimer 2008). If GOTV canvassing stimulates turnout, in part, by keying people into the social rewards of voting, it may be less effective in areas where people must cast ballots by mail. …

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