One of the biggest questions going into 2018 is whether Democrats can convince Millennials to vote. In this year's Virginia elections, we may have gotten an answer.
Voter turnout in the Commonwealth surged to a 20-year high for a gubernatorial cycle, and first-time candidates beat veteran Republican incumbents.
Now, perhaps less headline-worthy, but equally promising to digital strategists like us, left-leaning organizations made an unprecedented investment in online advertising to persuade and mobilize voters.
Investments in digital and organizing tactics by both inside players and outside groups capitalized on voter enthusiasm to produce the extraordinary turnout of the progressive electorate.
But the victory in Virginia cannot be attributed to any one tactic or single investment made by progressives. The true silver bullet that spurred historic turnout in the Commonwealth was Donald Trump. Anti-Trump energy and the increasingly left-leaning electorate itself, a product of the McAuliffe administration's commitment to increased voter enfranchisement through methods such as online voter registration, powered the local and statewide wins for Democrats.
If the progressive community is looking to draw lessons from Virginia, one clear takeaway is that a year out from the midterms, anti-Trump energy is palpable and we have an opportunity to channel that energy into building progressive infrastructure that will last beyond this unique moment in our political history.
But in order to build a digital advantage that’s made to last, we should heed another lesson from Virginia: Winning elections is only possible when we have done the hard work of growing our base and expanding the electorate. As we head into 2018, we should all seize this opportunity and invest early in digital voter registration.
Available now in 38 states, Online Voter Registration (OVR) has shown early promise. In Virginia, online registrations jumped from 5 percent of all registrations in 2013 to 28 percent in 2016. A deeper dive from voter turnout guru professor Michael McDonald of Florida University shows that in Maryland, individuals who registered online are twice as likely to be younger (18-29) than those who registered through other methods like direct mail (and please find us a young person who checks their mailbox everyday).
When you consider these encouraging signs with the fact that you can reach the rising electorate online several times a day across devices, it’s clear that investment in online voter registration is dangerously under-resourced by campaigns. Particularly when that investment is compared against other methods of registration like, for instance, canvassing.
Admittedly, executing an online voter registration program isn’t simple: of the 38 states that have online voter registration, almost all have unique criterion for data sharing (or have none at all). But in a time when you can reach more young people on Snapchat in an hour than you can on most cable networks in a week, the potential to bring new voters into the electoral process is too big to ignore. If we’re going to make online voter registration an effective mainstay of modern campaigning, we’ll need to build the capacity to experiment, and the infrastructure to build institutional knowledge. But getting there requires a first step forward.
Earlier this year, we took that first step. Joined by a small team of technology experts, we built a web-based application in coordination with the Virginia Department of Elections that made registering online faster and easier. Over the span of 20 days, we executed a digital advertising program that registered more than 1,000 new voters in the Commonwealth. Those new registrants will pay dividends beyond 2017 as the average voter participates in more than one election over their lifetime.
Equally important is the institutional knowledge we gained by running this first-of-its-kind program into how to find and register voters where they spend the majority of their free time.
We now have a better understanding of how users interact with voter registration websites, which Facebook ads get them to click (the ones with Trump), and which get them to register (the ones with Obama), and which text messages compel the last-minute procrastinators to register right before the deadline.
We also know more about the individuals who register — where they live, who they are, and that 12 percent of them were former felons who recently had their voting rights restored. Once the Virginia Department of Elections updates the voter file early next year, we’ll also know which of these new registrants took the most important step and voted.
Last Tuesday was a good night for Democrats, but it can still be improved upon —in Virginia and beyond.
When 80 percent of 18-24 years old check Facebook everyday, but only half are registered to vote, we know we still have work to do. Virginia was a first step. Now let’s take the next one and build a digital electorate for the long run.
Tara McGowan is the founder and CEO of ACRONYM and a veteran digital strategist who has built national digital programs for progressive organizations including Priorities USA, NextGen America, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Obama for America.
Patrick Bonsignore was the Director of Digital Media Planning at Hillary for America and now works as a Vice President at creative media agency GMMB.