Researching Voter Engagement and Obstacles in the Political Process: A Case Study with Vote Forward

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jul 16, 2020

In the 2016 presidential election, less than 56% of Americans voted. There are many non-voters who are passionate about political issues but aren’t engaged with the political process. We believe research can play a critical part in understanding the obstacles to being an active voter and how we can help remove them. Vote Forward wants to help more Americans engage with the political process. Their mission is to empower grassroots volunteers to help register voters from underrepresented demographics and encourage them to vote through letter-writing campaigns. In previous campaigns, Vote Forward has successfully increased voter turnout by 1-4 percentage points with the help of letters their volunteers send out.

As a part of AnswerLab’s Giving Back efforts, we conducted pro bono research to help Vote Forward better understand their audience, discover what non-voters want out of their voting experience, and gain valuable feedback on how to improve their templates and campaigns.

Vote Forward asked us:

What prevents potential voters from registering to vote? How can we help convince them to register?

Vote Forward wanted to learn about unregistered potential voters to understand their perspectives, opinions, and attitudes, define their obstacles to vote, and identify ways to reach them in their letter-writing campaigns.

We answered with an exploratory approach to encourage open conversations around voting obstacles and political engagement.

We designed an exploratory study to discuss politics, voting, and political communication with unregistered voters to better understand their needs. We also gathered their feedback and thoughts on Vote Forward’s letter-writing templates and prototypes. This study was a little different than a strict usability test. While you typically might test the usability and ease of interacting with a product using digital stimuli, these sessions focused on having open conversations around their experiences, political views, and the messaging and perception of physical pieces of political communication.

We talked to a range of participants in sixty-minute remote one-on-one in-depth interviews. Prior to the interviews, participants completed a digital homework assignment to share information about their habits and background, perspectives on political communication, and early memories of politics. Activities like these help get participants in the right mindset for the session and give the moderator concrete opinions to use as a jumping off point for the session. 

Participants were not registered to vote, located in a diverse range of states across the U.S. from Texas to Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, had a range of political leanings and interests, and were all eligible to vote in the U.S. Some participants had upcoming primary elections in their states. 

To gather feedback on their letter templates, we showed photographs of handwritten letters and envelopes and discussed participant reactions to them. We also asked that participants have a piece of paper available so they could show us how they would interact with certain aspects of the letters.

We found participants were passionate about the issues despite being disconnected from the political process.

Participants cared about political and social issues

Despite not being registered voters, our participants were not apathetic. Most had political or social issues they deeply cared about and some were even taking action in their communities around these issues. We discovered that obstacles to voting did not include a lack of care or passion, but instead a lack of political education, not knowing enough about the issues or candidates, insufficient time, or a lack of understanding about how or where to vote.

“Because I was uninformed, I didn’t want to blindly vote. I’d rather just not, and wait for the next [election] four years later for when I’m more informed and have learned more about it.”
- Participant, Lack of political education

Community connections were paramount

Many of our participants didn’t feel that their one vote would make a difference unless they were voting as part of a group or community. Some participants were already community organizing around political and social issues and felt this was more effective than a single vote. For participants already heavily involved in their community, giving them the tools to galvanize other voters and encourage community connections in the letters could be an effective way to make them feel their vote matters.

People want clear, trusted information.

Many of the participants we talked to felt overwhelmed and intimidated by political communication they’ve seen. And they didn’t know where to find trusted information about the candidates and what they stood for. Some felt distrust towards the political system and disliked the divisive anger and rhetoric they see in political communication. They want clear, nonpartisan information from sources they can trust.

“If one person’s vote in California is equal to 50 in Wisconsin because of the Electoral College...the way that it can be lopsided like that is just disconcerting.”
- Participant, Distrust of political system

Our recommendations

We made recommendations on how to improve Vote Forward’s voter registration letter templates and address these obstacles and hesitations. Not only did this give clear information and next steps for Vote Forward to act on in upcoming campaigns. It also opened up new lines of thinking and hypotheses for their team to explore and test in the future for an even greater impact.

Learn more about Vote Forward’s mission and how you can get involved.

We’d like to recognize the generosity of our partners. Thank you to dscout and Elliot Benson for donating their services for this project.

dscout Live is a tool for moderated video research on mobile and desktop. With features like automatic transcription, invisible observers, screen sharing, and stim board, and clip creation, it’s purpose-built by researchers for researchers. dscout Live makes your remote interviews more personal, and your video data more accessible.

Elliott Benson is a nationwide recruitment and field management company. Since 1995, Elliott Benson’s mission has been to facilitate high-quality research while providing ultra-personalized service to their clients. They manage all of the details involved in data collection so that their clients can focus solely on their research objectives.

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