Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, recently wrote in the The Los Angeles Times about low voter turnout in California. In the June 2014 primary, only a quarter of registered voters cast a ballot, the lowest turnout rate ever in a California primary. In addition to the general turnout problem, Professor Kousser also pointed out that voters in low-turnout elections are significantly older, more affluent and more likely to be white, which means the voters who participated in the primary didn’t accurately reflect the state’s population.

Kousser emphasized the need to reach beyond the “likely” voters that are typically contacted by campaigns and parties, citing recent research suggesting that such efforts would yield results. Kousser and a colleague identified registered voters who skipped primary elections, and then randomly selected 150,000 to target in the 2014 primary. They sent out targeted letters that provided information about the election and urged people to vote. The letters worked as well as similar letters in past experiments that targeted more frequent voters. In an especially encouraging finding, the letters spurred the greatest increase in turnout among voters who had participated in the fewest November elections in the previous four years. “Focusing on forgotten voters–those who are often left out of ‘get out the vote’ campaigns–can both boost turnout and produce an electorate more representative of California’s population as a whole.”

He noted that “Voting is habit-forming, but so is sitting out an election,” and in doing so reinforced the role nonprofits have to play in helping break those non-voting habits.

In 2012, Nonprofit VOTE worked with nonprofits in ten states to track their contacts with voters. We found “low propensity” voters–those believed to have a low likelihood of voting–contacted by nonprofits were three times more likely to vote than low-propensity voters that were not contacted. In fact, voters contacted by nonprofits turned out at higher rates than their counterparts across all demographics.  These findings underscore the potential of nonprofits to transform the American electorate by helping all eligible voters participate. Learn more about the relationship between nonprofits and nonvoters.

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