Mark Pack explains how to use email, Twitter and other social networks to get people to the polls
The efforts made by returning officers and local councils to encourage people to vote are remarkably crude when viewed from a marketing or political campaigning point of view. Send one, usually A5-sized black and white, textheavy leaflet to everyone a few weeks before polling day, stick a few posters up in libraries and that is pretty much it.
There are some good reasons for this. Shortage of funds is one. Another is that raising turnout is rarely a politically neutral act in its impact on election results, even if people from across the political spectrum agree in abstract that higher turnout is better than lower turnout. A third problem is that for these reasons - tradition, instinctive caution about using data on people and even principle about treating all voters equally - there is almost no individual targeting of voters. No aiming of extra material at people who didn't vote in previous elections. No saving of money by putting less effort into reminding those who vote regularly anyway.
Truth be told, were I a returning officer I would not do things much differently. I would certainly look to update the awful design of most poll cards, but I wouldn't be looking to run a phone bank targeting regular non-voters. That would become too controversial too quickly. Parties and candidates, however, are not held back in the way that returning officers are. Targeting supporters who don't always vote has long been a staple of election campaigns in the UK. With the rise of the internet and social networks, the online angle to such Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns continues to grow in importance.
The most important internet technique is also the oldest online one - the trusty email. GOTV emails, individually targeted with mailmerged- in details of where someone's polling station is located and a link to a map, can make a significant difference, and at a fraction of the effort that delivering an extra round of leaflets would take. Of course, you should always do both...!
Basic information also often goes down well, particularly with first-time voters who are not yet familiar with the opening hours of polling stations, or who don't know you do not need your poll card in order to vote.
Texts and tweets do not have the space to provide that range of useful information, but they do have the sense of urgency and immediacy that makes them well-suited for follow-up reminders, particularly on the day itself. Emails may not get looked at for a day or two; it's a rare text message that does not get read within minutes. However, make sure you tie in such messages with your records of who has voted and who has a postal vote, so the message and the list of recipients can be refined accordingly.
Prompting and providing information are two ways of getting the vote out. A third is to use the power of example. If people see those they know have voted, they are more likely to vote themselves. Social networks are almost perfectly designed for such activity. Encourage your supporters to tweet and/or update their Facebook status once they have voted so their friends can see what they have done.
Some campaigns produce special graphics that people can use to change their picture on social networks to an "I've voted" logo. This can be visually striking, though remember that even something so simple for the technically adept to do, actually can be quite a challenge for others. There is often virtue in the simplicity of text updates.
Last-minute information about how and where to vote should also be put on websites or blogs, as people often turn to Google to find such things. This is particularly important if your local council website either does not provide such timely, detailed information or does, but hides it many clicks away from the front page and obscures it from search engines.
When the election is over, the votes counted and the winners declared, do not forget that you can use all these channels once again to let people know the result. For the general election, there will be many media outlets providing the list of winners and details of vote totals. However, for the local elections there is often a long silence until the next edition of a weekly newspaper appears. Your residents will want to know the result sooner - so tell them.