Winning on Mail Ballots, and Doing It Ethically
In Rhode Island politics, what’s old is new, and there’s nothing more old school RI politics than the “mail ballot operation.”
Known as the quintessential strategy to a generation of political operatives and fixers from the Buddy Cianci era, the campaign strategy has historically been associated with a range of unethical practices. The most alarming tactic included campaign operatives coercing or confusing people with disabilities and seniors in high rise complexes for their vote. The practice was brought to greater prominence in 2020 by exposés in the Wall Street Journal and Providence Journal.
Given the procedural loopholes that allow such questionable practices to be used by unscrupulous campaigns, it’s worth asking if there is a more ethical way for campaigns to get their supporters to vote early (by mail or in-person), and 2020 gave us some insight that the answer is indefatigably, yes.
Ethical Early Voting Programs Win
In 2020, Systems Change Strategies (SCS) consulted on 5 primary elections and 5 general elections for state legislative and municipal candidates, and pioneered an approach that has proven not only to abide by ethical and legal standards, but that statistically outperforms the conventional focus on high-rise and senior-living facility harvesting technique utilized by old school practitioners.
A comparative analysis performed by SCS of the purported “mail ballot king” and his consulting firm, Winning Ways, featured in the aforementioned expose articles, found that SCS’s candidates on average received more votes than the competition’s candidates in terms of mail ballot votes, early votes, and total votes. In fact, our analysis showed that the only type of voting in which Winning Ways, or any comparable group or firm, exceeded the SCS approach was in day-of votes.*
Beyond the vote received average by category, SCS’s approach yielded the most important outcome—electoral wins—in every campaign we were engaged, going 5-0 in the primary and 5-0 in the general election. This included our candidates unseating two of Winning Ways’ incumbent clients in contested primary elections. All in all, Winning Ways went 8-4 in the primary elections, though only 3-4 in races that were contested. Their candidates went 6-2 overall and 2-2 in contested races in the general election.
How Ethical Early Voting Programs Work
Given the success of the SCS model, it’s worth asking how it maintains voter’s independence/integrity in ways that traditional methods do not, and how it is more effective.
First our approach always begins with the development of the fundamentals for any successful campaign - a clear and concise message, an efficient and structured organization, and fundraising to support both. So often in our political ecosystem, we see silver bullet solutions offered as easy fixes to complex problems, but electoral campaigns, like governments, are multifaceted and complex organizations that require customized and responsive solutions. This approach begins with an analysis of the candidate and the voters, and reverse-engineers the campaign from the desired voter activation outcomes. This includes creating a resonant and contrasting message, securing the people and a commitment of their time necessary to do the work of the campaign, and the financial and other resources needed to implement every tactic the campaign requires.
Our experience is that many campaigns skimp on or skip these basics, and instead focus all their efforts on either mail ballots, or fundraising. A campaign can push mail ballots all day, but if voters aren’t buying what you’re selling, because of an ineffective message, then it’s all for naught. While people often place a great deal of significance on the amount of funds raised by a campaign, not nearly as much attention is placed on how the funds are spent. The story featured in the above exposes is a great example; despite heavy spending on a mail ballot operation, the candidate secured just 30% of the total votes, yet spent the most of any candidate we tracked in the cycle at $63.63 per vote received. That is one highly inefficient operation -- as well as one of questionable integrity!
At SCS, we center our work on bringing value to the communities we serve, and so we would never recommend coercing or “coaching” a voter on how to vote. But beyond our adherence to ethical standards and supporting any campaign we engage with to do the same, our approach simply incorporates sharing mail ballot and early voting information from the start of every campaign, and building participation gradually and consistently through education and regular communication about the process and timelines. The end result is these alternative options for voting become a convenient means for people who don’t normally vote to exercise their franchise, and the campaign can count on their support going into election day. The response from voters has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the most common reasons expressed is from working people who might not otherwise be able to get to the polls on election day. Through a strong early voting program, infrequent and non-voters become more likely to participate in the election through the convenience of voting by mail or early at city/town hall.
Understandably there’s a good deal of data management, technology, organization, and a boat load of human energy involved in implementing this strategy that a blog post doesn’t afford us the space to detail.
To learn more, contact us for a free consultation, or to inquire about training opportunities.
* An interesting corollary finding given the relatively more conservative ideological positions of Winning Way’s candidates would indicate conservative Democrats, like Republicans in 2020, voted more often at the polls than via mail ballot or in-person early at city or town hall.