Driving down the streets of Phoenix, odds are that you will see a red billboard with the word “VOTE” splashed across in giant white letters. Underneath that simple message is a reminder, in English and Spanish, that Election Day is Nov. 6.
You can spot the billboards in eight other states as part of Vote.org’s turnout push for the 2018 midterms. The team of 10 staffers is helming a $10 million effort to increase voter turnout among young people and people of color who typically do not turn out in high numbers.
“We market voting itself,” said Debra Cleaver, the founder and CEO of the nonpartisan Vote.org, which focuses on registering voters and turning them out. In a Wednesday phone interview, she recalled coming up with the idea while reading a billboard at a San Francisco bus stop, and realizing her group could use the relatively inexpensive medium to encourage people to vote.
Cleaver said traditional voter contact by campaigns often centers on television advertising, which tend to reach older voters, and campaigns largely focus on voters who consistently turn out.
So Vote.org is zeroing in on states that have a high number of registered voters who don’t typically show up at the polls. The group launched more than 2,500 billboards and “transit advertisements,” including wrapped double-decker buses across the country. Vote.org is also running more than 1,200 ads in college newspapers and a texting campaign in 29 states.
So far, more than 1.2 million voters have registered through the group’s platform — three times its goal for the 2018 cycle. Roughly 400,000 people registered in the four days after singer Taylor Swift promoted the site and encouraged her fans to register to vote.
But the communities that Vote.org are working to turn out — young people and people of color — tend to favor Democrats. Cleaver insisted her group’s mission was not partisan, noting it does not ask for voters’ party affiliation as part of its texting campaign.
“For some reason over the past decade or so, simply registering voters, people have tried to cast that as a partisan activity. Being able to choose our elected officials is one of the things that make America great,” Cleaver said. “If you can’t win when turnout goes up, it’s because your platform is alienating.”
The billboards can be seen in nine states: Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina. Cleaver said some locations were preferred by funders, but the locations had to meet the group’s criteria for having a high number of low propensity voters.
She noted that the only state without competitive races was Mississippi, but that Vote.org wanted to focus part of its effort there because African-American voters, who tend to be more Democratic, make up more than a third of the electorate.
“If you just look at the demographics, how is Mississippi not considered a competitive state? And we were like, ‘Oh, because no one ever invests any money in it,’” Cleaver said. “Every race you ignore is not competitive because you’re ignoring it.”
Vote.org launched in 2016, growing out of Cleaver’s “Long Distance Voter” site, which assisted voters using absentee ballots. She attributed the site’s quick growth to voters’ dissatisfaction with polarization.
“I think people are seeing the effects of low voter turnout in a way that’s making them uncomfortable,” Cleaver said. “At the end of the day, you don’t want radical candidates. You don’t want people who only appeal to a small percentage of the population.”
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