Underrepresented-minority voters brought to polls by face time, not Facebook, study says

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Researchers studying how to best bring underrepresented-minority voters to the polls have found that new technologies such as texting and social media are not as effective as more personal forms of outreach.

A study published earlier this month, led by professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, examined the attempts of nonpartisan organizations across the state to mobilize underrepresented-minority voters in the 2014 elections through traditional methods — such as door-to-door canvassing and phone calls — as well as new technologies, such as text messages and Facebook ads.

According to the study, social media was ineffective at bringing underrepresented minorities and youth to the polls, while texting — which has seen some success mobilizing those who already vote with greater frequency — was inconsistent. Instead, personal contact on the phone or at the door remained the most effective way to turn out California underrepresented-minority voters.

Bedolla conducted this study in part, she said, because “these are the voters that, generally speaking, campaigns don’t mobilize.” She sees the low turnout rate of underrepresented minorities not as a primarily partisan issue, but as a concern for democratic society as a whole.

“I believe our electorate needs to represent the population,” said Bedolla, whose study noted that turnout rates among eligible black, Hispanic, and Asian voters were between 20 and 30 percent during the 2014 election.

The takeaway from the study, that new technologies — texting, in particular — are not as effective for mobilizing underrepresented-minority voters, may not hold true over time, however. As the report acknowledges, rapid technological advances could significantly change mobilization strategies in the near future.

“Any generalization requires many, many studies,” said campus associate professor of political science Laura Stoker, voicing a position similar to the study, which recommended that groups “continually test their assumptions about the effectiveness of particular get-out-the-vote technologies.”

But for Bedolla, the most important lesson of this study is one that will not likely be forgotten as technology continues to evolve. As she noted in her work’s conclusion, “this study underscores the importance of culturally competent and contextually appropriate outreach” in attempting to mobilize voters.

Professor of political science and director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Jack Citrin said he was not surprised that social media is less of a factor in mobilizing voters. He noted that the context in which potential voters are approached is more significant than technology platforms used to reach them.

“The implications of her study are that to mobilize these particular groups, if you want to, the mechanisms for reaching them … would have to be tailored to the population,” he said.

In the meantime, the study suggested, “more meaningful contact, such as in person, is critical for mobilizing these voters.”

Contact Maxwell Jenkins-Goetz at [email protected].