In the past week, politically active Yalies have wondered how much their efforts affected the outcome of the election. The research of Yale professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber has argued that contacting voters only marginally affects vote turnout. But recent analysis by blogger Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com based on exit poll data has suggested that canvassing in various states had a direct relationship with Obama’s success at the polls there. (And don’t forget that sometimes even a few hundred votes is huge. Just look at the 2000 presidential vote in Florida or this year’s Minnesota senate race.). But get-out-the-vote efforts are important regardless of their power to convince people to vote.
Though ideally the government would ensure that citizens have the knowledge and resources necessary to vote, in their all-too-common absence, the efforts of campaigns make up for government inadequacy. When the government fails to educate voters about the technical aspects of voting, such as their polling location or status as registered voters, canvassers are there to fill in.
Many local government agencies endeavor to provide voters with some information, often through a postcard sent about a week before the election indicating polling location and hours. But in spite of these efforts many people remain uninformed. Even those who have chosen a candidate for whom to vote are often unsure of how to vote.
I spent a portion of Election Day making phone calls to swing states to encourage people to vote. No one I spoke with had to be convinced to vote, but out of the hundred or so voters I called, five did not know where to go. I was not alone: most others I spoke with after the election, both phonebankers and canvassers, had experiences that mirrored mine.
For instance, the complicated New Haven districting system left some people confused about where to vote. A handful of people in certain wards, like the residents of Pierson and Davenport, vote in one place for national election on even years and in another for local elections on odd years. The population affected was small, but this just compounded the problem: since the vast majority of a ward votes at the same location in all years, aldermen and other public officials working to get out the vote occasionally gave incorrect information to this small group.
Although New Haven is a relatively benign example — there were no heavily contested elections and overall only a few people were affected — such problems were endemic across the country. A canvasser in inner city Cleveland explained that eviction notices had been plastered on many of the doors on which she knocked. She spoke with a number of people who had recently moved and did not know whether their voting location had changed or, worse, who thought they were no longer registered at all. The issue in Cleveland is especially problematic because it took place in a swing state and because it disproportionately affected a poor voters; eviction notices and the attendant frequent moves are rarely experienced by the wealthy.
Other often-marginalized groups face similar problems. In Virginia, ex-felons must petition the governor to regain the right to vote. But few are told that they just have to submit a one-page application; most think they’ve lost their right for life. In Virginia, as is true throughout the nation, convicted felons are disproportionately African American.
Canvassers, by contacting voters and informing them about the minutiae of casting a ballot — where to vote, that they can vote — often take on the governmental role as voter informant. And if, as was the experience of many canvassers, information is much scarcer in poor areas and those with significant minority populations, canvassing may work to level the playing field.
It is unfortunate that campaigns and advocacy groups have to take on this role. Although a few, such as Rock the Vote, are non-partisan, most are affiliated with a specific party and have an agenda beyond simply mobilizing the electorate. An Obama volunteer does not want a McCain supporter to vote. Those phonebanking for the Democratic campaign only called likely Obama supporters on Election Day. Furthermore, due to the limited resources of each campaign, canvassers are only dispatched to highly contested areas; volunteers for either campaign would never contact that New Havener living in the pocket of the ward oddly voting elsewhere on off years.
The government, at a local or state level, needs to work harder to ensure that all citizens are given the information they need to vote. The roles of canvassers would then shift to their intended ones — convincing people vote for their candidates. But until the government acts, they will continue to play a vital role ensuring that citizens have a fair chance to vote.
Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.