The Voter Participation Center (VPC) is unique among civic engagement groups because of its reliance on Research & Development (R&D). From controlled experiments to measure and improve programmatic effectiveness and cost-efficiency to demographic and public opinion surveys, the VPC uses a broad array of research instruments to develop and refine programs, tools and tactics designed to reach and increase the democratic participation of the Rising American Electorate (RAE) — defined as unmarried women (single, widowed, divorced or separated women), people of color and 18-29 year olds — the majority of voting-eligible citizens in America today.

To increase voter participation in all aspects of our democracy, the VPC uses science — randomized, controlled clinical trials similar to those used in medical research, and a constant feedback loop — experiments to measure, hone and improve programs, models and tactics in real-time. These tests are conducted in-cycle and also evaluated after each cycle to determine what worked — and did not — to produce a net effect (a net additional vote or other activity that would not have happened were it not for VPC’s programs). The VPC has built over 100 randomized trials into its work over the last seven years. The work of the VPC is centered on increasing the voices of the under-represented in a metrics-based approach that ensures accountability and a return on investment for investors and the civic engagement community at large.

Rigorous evaluations of the VPC’s efforts over the last four cycles have shown constant, exceptional and dramatic increases in its effectiveness and return-on-investment. The VPC’s commitment to research and development has enabled it to continually bend the cost curve on all programs, from voter registration to get out the vote and advocacy efforts. In part, because of this strategic R & D approach, the VPC is unique in its ability to cost-effectively reach historically under-represented voters in the RAE through a variety of scalable programs that are not redundant to other outreach efforts.

To increase RAE participation in 2011 and 2012 the VPC plans to mobilize the largest number of voters in key states by doing what the VPC does best: by bringing past learnings to current programs while conducting control group tests that result in quantifiable metrics; by learning from and building on the advances made by the state tables, the Analyst Institute and others while ensuring all new knowledge is shared quickly and broadly; and, by mining the treatment data and survey research the VPC conducts to develop cutting edge models that are available to the community at large.

The work of the VPC is also built on a thorough understanding of the new demographic changes in this country and their implications. According to the latest Census data, the unmarried women, people of color and young people ages 18-29 who make up the RAE are overwhelmingly responsible for the recent growth in the U.S. population: The RAE accounted for 81 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2010 and 95 percent between 2008 and 2010; unmarried women and Latinos drove this explosion, both growing by 8 million between 2000 and 2010.

Understanding the voting habits, issue concerns, media habits, information levels and collective characteristics of this rapidly emerging, new American majority is key to developing effective registration, turnout and advocacy programs. Knowing, for example, that as a group, the RAE is highly mobile (42 percent moved between 2006 and 2010), less likely to register and vote but more likely to support those causes and candidates who share their progressive values is information essential to the crafting of the VPC’s outreach and mobilization efforts.

The VPC commissions frequent public opinion surveys and focus groups designed to measure and track RAE information levels and attitudes about policy issues and voting.

Constant Testing and Refining

The success and reputation of the VPC is based on the constant testing and refining of knowledge. The VPC uses this knowledge to develop and refine models to increase the accuracy of its targeting, improve its list-based technologies and adapt to changing voting technologies, timing and tools. The VPC’s models, programs, lists, and messages are evaluated on an on-going basis for their impact and cost- effectiveness.

In a given two-year election cycle the VPC will test and measure scores of new tactics to increase turnout and inform voters. Each cycle’s experiments lay the groundwork for new breakthroughs.

The VPC 2011 and 2012 registration and turnout programs have been built on lessons learned from the evaluations of previous cycles’ programs and the control group experiments. In 2008, VPC programs run in 35 states based on previous testing resulted in 87.8 percent of the 946,822 VPC applicants becoming successful registrants, with 77 percent of them voting, according to the New Organizing Institute (NOI). According to Catalist — the national organization that tracks voter registration efforts -most of the contacts the VPC made in 2008 did not overlap with any other independent organizations that Catalist tracked — 81 percent would not have been reached out to at all if not for the VPC’s — then WVWV’s — efforts.

In 2010, the VPC ran programs in 21 states and contacted 4,020,551 voters. In addition to programming, the VPC ran 34 major controlled tests (along with scores of minor tests) that built on previous learnings. In 2010, the NOI found that 93.9 percent of the VPC applicants were successful.

2010 lessons that are reflected in current VPC voter registration programs include:

  • conducting quarterly voter registration programs improves response rates and cuts costs per net additional vote
  • reaching out to register young people just before they turn 18 and movers soon after their move yields better results and lowers the cost per net additional vote
  • using state voter registration forms instead of the national voter registration form lifts response rates by 14 percent
  • overlaying phone and mail contacts on a traditional door-to-door canvass can generate significant synergies in terms of registration response
  • a list-based approach and utilizing modeling increases response rates
  • a simple “plain” mail piece is more effective than a glossy mail piece with beautiful photos for both voter registration and informing about candidates
  • asking someone to make a promise to vote or to talk to their friends about voting and reminding them about those promises increases their turnout in elections

The VPC is committed to sharing all of what it has learned and the products and tools that evolve from its research including targeting models, programs, list technology developments, public opinion surveys, messaging guides and mail package designs. In addition, the VPC regularly provides the community and lawmakers with the latest and most granular information on the changing nature of America’s demographic makeup as well as the public policy needs of unmarried women and other underrepresented groups.

The VPC is continually releasing new information to the community though reports and memos, conference calls, and most comprehensively, through an annual summit which is held to share the evaluation of programs and the results of in-cycle testing to increase the number of RAE members contacted, registered and turned out and to reduce the cost per net voter of those efforts. The findings presented at the VPC summits can be found on the VPC website. [hyperlink]