How I (probably) failed to register my neighbours to vote…and how I might succeed next time

A door.

Last weekend I posted some leaflets through the letterboxes of all the flats in my 1930s building near Waterloo. I was supposed to be knocking on doors and asking people whether they’d registered to vote. But I’d run out of time – and, feeling it was too late to disturb people, posted the voter registration pack – a letter and form from Join The Vote (a non-partisan, charity-supported, 38 Degrees-led coalition) through the letterboxes instead.

I went back several days later – this time earlier in the evening – and knocked on the relatively few doors into flats which showed signs of life. No answers. Well, one answer – but he was the local activist type, who is often whipping up support for some petition or other. Not surprisingly, of course he’d registered to vote.

And really, it would be a surprise if many of the building residents had failed to vote – this locale is easy-pickings for local party activists, particularly Labour and Lib Dems who are battling it out to define who is more useless, ‘barmy’ or wasteful in regard to running Lambeth Council. We’ve all had a lot of leaflets. A lot. Flats are great for the letterbox/minute ratio. And canvassing too – at least twice in the last few months – and that’s only counting the times I’ve been in.

So was it likely that many people weren’t registered to vote? Did it matter that I failed miserably to allow enough time to do several rounds of door-knocking?

Who knows, but it’s worth looking a little more deeply at the Join the Vote campaign.

It was a great idea: use 38 Degrees’ giant email list to drum up lots of volunteers who would go out and register the great unregistered. Thousands of non-voters would be transformed into eager participants in the democratic process, boosting turnout and therefore democratic legitimacy.

Lofty goals. But great ones – and ones that people in service of democracy, rather than any political party – could get behind. An untapped army of people that care about politics and care about democracy, but are put-off by party political tactics. And an army appeared: over 4,000 people signed up to help across the country – each could cleverly plot their ‘walk’ on a shared Google Map.

Screenshot of Join The Vote walk page

Join the Vote have said they’ll send out news as to the results soon – it will be interesting to see whether we made a dent in the estimated millions of unregistered people. If not, then it might have been due to a couple of strategic flaws.

First, the project didn’t ask why people were likely to be unregistered. In my area, if people were not registered, in spite of the relentless political pamphletting, it might have been because their English literacy isn’t great. So to be presented with the verbose letter and not-brilliantly-clear registration form may have been off-putting. Similarly, if a majority of unregistered folks are under-25, what could the project have done to target them better?

Second, it didn’t make an effort to focus on the places where people are unregistered. It’s not unlikely that the sort of people who volunteer to go out and register people for the good of democracy are geographically biased towards already politically engaged locations, particularly in urban areas.

Lastly, there were a few more easily fixed logistical flaws: there wasn’t sufficient time to carry out the tasks; the packs (well, mine at least) didn’t include everything they should have done; and the instructions to volunteers weren’t always clear.

More worryingly, I wonder if there’s a risk that people who had already registered were confused by the letter and new registration form, such that they started to doubt whether they had actually registered properly with the council, and now are now less likely to go out and vote? Perhaps a small risk, but one that needs considering.

However, even if – as in my experience – the results of this project aren’t great, it will hopefully still serve as a useful pilot, which will direct a better-planned, longer-run project for the general election in 2015.

This might begin with some new research, commissioned (or crowdsourced?) into the reasons why people don’t vote. Is it literacy skills? Forgetfulness? Rejection of the system?

The answers should inform the rest of the project, including whether door-knocking is actually an appropriate solution: what is the problem we are trying to solve? If it is simply a case of reminding or convincing people, then we start along the same lines as Join the Vote…

  • Step one is some clever data wrangling to establish exactly which houses have unregistered residents (the electoral roll shows everyone who’s registered, subtract this from a more inclusive list of dwellings (TV licences, council tax bills?) or just rely on the local knowledge of volunteers.)
  • Step two is the design of a smartphone app which locates you, the volunteer, on a map of these unregistered residents. The app plots a suggested route for you depending on the time you have or how many houses you want to knock on, etc. This could ensure far more efficient use of the x,000 volunteers, who could also use the app to input the results on the doorstep, providing realtime data back to HQ and other volunteers – saving anyone from door-knocking twice. Done sufficiently in advance, and with enough data, volunteers could even A/B test doorstep rhetoric, and thus advise other volunteers on what works.
  • Step three is to provide an easy way for teams or pairs to form – it’s more fun to go around with other democracy fans, gives volunteers confidence and is perhaps more engaging for the unregistered on the doorstep.
  • Step four is to ‘gamify’ the process – build online profiles and award badges and prizes to the teams who register the most new voters. Create league tables for different areas or postcodes by the number of new registrations.

I’ll aim to update this post and add some other ideas as the outcomes of the project are shared.

Photo credit: Alexander Edward BY-NC-ND 2.0


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