Turnout Scores Are Not Destiny

Campaigns have finite resources. If you’ve ever worked on a campaign, particularly one in a low-turnout election (think races for school board, city council, or even mayor), you’ve likely heard someone in the campaign’s leadership talk about narrowing the voter universe to focus resources on the people most likely to turn out. 

Modern campaigns use something called turnout scores to assign every registered voter a probability of voting. If you vote in every election, you’re a 100. If you’ve never voted, you’re a zero. Most of us fall somewhere in between, but as a general rule, the higher the turnout score, the older and whiter the voter is. 

As an example, a commonly used turnout model predicts 63% of Texas voters in their 60s to have a score of 70 or above. Only 26% of Texas voters in their 30s have a score above 70. For white voters of any age, 49% have a score above 70 versus 27% of Latino and 38% of Black voters, respectively. 

These turnout scores have a profound impact on who is prioritized by campaigns in a given election. Higher propensity voters are more likely to be targeted by campaigns and pollsters. These voters’ opinions shape the issues candidates talk about, and how they talk about them. 

There’s certainly a logic to this – but it’s a logic that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy about who votes in elections. If campaigns deprioritize people whose scores suggest they are less likely to vote, they remain less likely to vote because they were never engaged. In this way, a small subset of voters continue to dominate local elections – elections that often have a profound impact on what and how our kids learn. 

However, this pattern can be broken with well-conceived voter engagement plans. A recent internal analysis concludes that voters targeted with PACE’s voter participation tactics turned out at higher rates than other voters in the same elections in 12 of 13 campaigns – on average, by 10 percent. Voters targeted with our efforts outperformed their expected turnout, which predicts turnout likelihood based on each individual’s unique characteristics, in 13 of 13 campaigns – on average, by 11 percentage points.

This was achieved by sticking to a few core principles.

Messengers matter

We work with organizations that have a relationship with the communities they serve. They have built trust over time with the voters they are communicating with, and so voters are more likely to engage with our message. 

Multiple points of contact

There is no magic bullet when it comes to turnout tactics. Mail, digital, phones and canvassing  all provide opportunities to communicate that a voter’s voice matters and you care that their voice is heard. And this contact shouldn’t end on election day – you should be communicating with your community year round to connect the impact of their vote with what’s happening on the ground.

Talk with people … and listen to them

Whether it is a community organizer in a one-on-one, a volunteer making phone calls or a school sending out a family survey, don’t just tell people their voice matters. Instead, show them that it matters by talking with and listening to them. This type of authentic engagement goes a long way toward building trust.

In saying turnout scores are not destiny, we are really saying that demographics are not destiny. With a model that looks at history to predict future performance, existing inequalities or imbalances can quickly become systemic as they self perpetuate over time.

It’s on all of us to break those inequities. And the next time someone tells you it’s not worth engaging a group of voters, don’t be afraid to push back. 

By Jason Provost