Most adult US citizens have the right to vote, but voter participation is nowhere near 100%. One cause of low voter turnout is the difficulties involved in registering to vote. These problems can particularly affect people of lower socioeconomic status.
Voter registration as a group EA activity has the following benefits:
it is something people can do together
it requires minimal training and skills
it is something that the vast majority of people consider to be a “good” thing
it is at least an ostensibly nonpartisan way of improving the world (more on the “ostensibly” part later)
and it is plausibly more effective than most other volunteer opportunities meeting these other criteria
With those benefits in mind, the EA Madison group decided to try registering voters.
In Wisconsin, you need to be a special registration deputy in order to register voters. This involves watching a 20 minute video and sending a form into a government office. We therefore had one meet up in which we all became deputized – seven people attended this, which is roughly average attendance for our meetups.
In general, if someone has been eligible to vote for a number of years but hasn’t, it’s fairly unlikely that you will convince them to. Therefore, you want to find people who either 1) recently became eligible to vote (e.g. they just turned 18 or got off parole) or 2) recently moved (and therefore need to re-register).
At least in Wisconsin, you are legally obligated to register anyone who wishes to register, regardless of their political affiliation (heavy is the weight of responsibility upon the special registration deputy). Therefore, even explicitly partisan groups need some façade of neutrality. In practice though, people are geographically segregated by major political party, and based on where you are registering them it’s pretty easy to guess who the person you are registering will vote for.
Exacerbating this problem is my previous observation that there is only a small number of people who you could hope to influence. Therefore, just going door-to-door or setting up shop at an intersection is extremely unlikely to be effective; you need a curated list of target voters. But there is not (to my knowledge) any nonpartisan group which creates these lists, and even if there were you risk duplicating the efforts of partisan groups.
An even worse problem is that the Republican Party seems distinctly less interested in registering voters. (I think the sort of people who need help registering tend to vote Democrat?) I was unable to find a single Republican group that was registering voters in Madison – I’m not sure if that’s unique to us or if that’s a more general problem.
One of the people who attended our first meet up was a member of the “Madtown Organizers”, a local community organizing group. He suggested coordinating voter registration with them, and we unanimously agreed, despite them being a progressive organization.
I’m not entirely sure what to do about this – coordinating with an external group removes the party neutrality of EA, but not coordinating results in the work being near-useless. I think one possible solution is to target a specific group of people (e.g. low income housing) and ask various groups if they are coordinating voter registration in that area [this is basically what we did]. Inevitably, only one party will actually be interested in registering those voters, but at least we are attempting to be nonpartisan., [1, 2]
At the end of the meeting where we became special registration deputies, we set a date two weeks in the future to go out registering voters. We split into three smaller groups and used a list of people who had recently moved, given to us by the Madtown Organizers. In all, we spent a bit less than three hours on this on a Saturday afternoon; about 30 minutes of that was orientation/training which I expect we would not need to repeat if we do it again.
Group 1: 5 voters registered, plus one who planned to mail in his registration form later3
Group 2: 3 voters registered
Group 3: ? 4
Door to door outreach is one of the most effective methods of increasing turnout. It seems like we were able to register 1-2 voters per hour. VOTE.org claims that it can register voters for four dollars each. This implies that we were about as effective at registering voters as if we had worked a minimum wage job and donated the money.
However, we decided to go in groups of two or three rather than going individually, which obviously cuts our effectiveness by a factor of two. I’m not sure if this was necessary (see “things to do differently” below).
There was a decent amount of time to get to know the people you are partnered with, because you spend a time traveling between houses and there’s nothing else you can do really besides talk. I would consider it a pretty good project in terms of getting to know other people in the group, although you obviously will only get to know one or two other people at a time.
Several people have attempted to estimate the value of a marginal vote: Peter Norvig estimates it at around $1 million; Edlin, Gelman and Kaplan estimate it at around $30,000-$400,000 based on different scenarios. (The latter set of authors have a more theoretical paper as well.) If you take these figures at anything approaching face value, this is by far the most effective meet up with ever done.5
Historically, Effective Altruist groups have concerned themselves with fairly uncontroversial policy advocacy (e.g. counseling politicians on ways to improve aid), but have had minimal involvement in politics (i.e. campaigning for a specific party or politician). One reason is the risks of what GiveWell calls “adversarial” philanthropy:
I’ve long been wary of giving opportunities that involve taking on other people as adversaries, and I think a lot of our audience shares my misgivings. One reason for this is that projects with active, intelligent opposition are likely to have more difficult – and unpredictable – paths to success. Another reason is the potential difficulty of being on the right side. When working on controversial issues, one can easily be blinded by personal biases and ideology into believing a particular change is more desirable than it is, with the result that even a “success” can end up doing more harm than good.
Slate Star Codex similarly writes:
if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war.
I think these arguments are fairly persuasive in general, but still think voter registration is a reasonable thing to do, at least in some cases:
People have such positive views of voting that it’s relatively unlikely we would be criticized for helping others to exercise their right to vote. (Even though we were cold knocking on doors, everyone who answered was astonishingly polite.)
We should definitely have humility in our judgments, and sometimes this means not voting, but this doesn’t mean that we never have anything useful to say. For example, many EAs care much more about the long run future of humanity than the average voter – often times this gives us zero additional insight into policy, but occasionally (e.g. Brexit, US 2016 presidential election) this gives us insight that the average voter does not have.
Some discussion on the pros and cons of getting involved in the US 2016 presidential election can be found here.
I don’t think registering voters is the optimal charitable intervention, but I do think it overcomes some of the standard objections to political involvement.
Things to do differently
The Madtown Organizers paired us off and gave each pair one clipboard. In retrospect, I think it would’ve been better for each pair to have two clipboards; the pair could drive to a neighborhood together and then split up to cover more ground. (Because we were only targeting voters who had recently moved, the houses we went to were pretty spread out and so I’m not 100% confident that this would’ve made things more efficient.)
Intuitively, it seems to me that going through dorms at a college should be higher impact, but maybe this is a very saturated market already. (I’m skeptical that the Madtown Organizers would have overlooked college dorms, so presumably there’s a good reason why we didn’t go there.)
I think phone banking might, in some ways, be a better group activity because you can all stick together, but I don’t think there’s any chance that you could do that in a nonpartisan way. If anyone knows of nonpartisan phone banking opportunities, I would be interested in hearing about that.
I had hoped that, since registering voters is a more “socially approved” way of improving the world than lot of EA things, we would attract people who don’t usually come to the meet up. We got a couple new people, but it wasn’t a ton.
Overall, I think it was slightly above average as a meetup, but not massively better than usual. Our local student EA group has plans to do other voter registration events, and I’m interested to see how those turn out.
National Voter Registration Day is September 27, and the nonpartisan NVRD is coordinating registrations on that day. If you are considering doing voter registration, I would encourage you to try coordinating through them and let us know how it goes. I’m also happy to help answer any questions you have about organizing a voter registration meetup.
I would like to think Gina Stuessy and Linchuan Zhang for proofreading drafts of this, and all of the EA Madison members for making a great meetup group.
- There are nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, but they didn't seem to be anywhere near as active as partisan groups here. Your mileage may vary.
- Certainly if anyone had had concerns about working with a progressive organization I would've considered that an automatic veto. I knew the political orientation of almost everyone involved ahead of time though, and the few I didn't made their views pretty clear, so I'm pretty confident we didn't offend any of our members.
- Wisconsin has passed a number of laws making it more difficult for people to vote. Every single person we registered had difficulty finding documentation which was accepted by the state, and one person was completely unable to find documentation so we had to ask him to turn in the form himself once he had found some.
- Due to a coordination failure on my part, I didn’t get informationabout the last group
- Obviously this is much truer in the US if you live in a "swing" state.