Modern text messaging technology boasts the ability for users to chat with friends on the go, send in the choice for a favorite American Idol contestant or even order a pizza – and in the wake of this year’s presidential primaries, text messages are being used to urge young people to get out and vote.
On Monday night, the eve of yesterday’s monumental Super Tuesday, the Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) New Voters Project sent out 20,000 text messages to young people reminding them to vote. The New Voters Project, which works to mobilize young voters, is a nonpartisan group that launched in 2003.
The New Voters Project had experimented with such a form of voter mobilization in 2006, sending out text messages to over 4,000 mobile numbers chosen from a group of mainly youths on the eve of the November elections. Afterward, the recipients of the texts were matched with voting records to see if they had voted. The follow-up concluded that overall, the text messages had raised the likelihood of an individual voting by over four percent.
Sujatha Jahagirdar, Director of the New Voters Project, said the recipients of this year’s 20,000 text messages were chosen among students who had signed up through classroom announcements and activities.
Jahagirdar said she believes that methods like the text message initiative will work for young voters, a contingent she referred to as “a population that’s been largely neglected,” due to the amount of time they spend online. “We have indications that this is a successful strategy to at least increase youth turnout,” she said. “I do think that groups will be using technology more and more [in the future] because it does provide a great way to reach younger voters.”
According to sophomore Tufts Votes co-director Shana Hurley, the text messages have not reached any significant number of voters on the Tufts campus. “We didn’t do any sort of text message awareness,” she said. “I don’t know of any Tufts students who received it.”
But Hurley said she recognizes the potentially powerful effects that text messages and other technological innovations could have on young voters. “I think that’s a really good idea,” she said.
Hurley recalled using Facebook.com to get the word out to her fellow college students in 2006 and how it impacted people she was friends with on the site.
“On Election Day, I was posting info for absentee ballots,” she said. “And I had a bunch of my friends I’d gone to high school with [who I hadn’t been keeping in touch with] e-mail me and say, ‘thanks so much for doing that.'”
Although Jahagirdar and Hurley acknowledged the potential for technology to increase voter turnout, both agreed that traditional ground communication is necessary to get people involved.
“[Technology] can be very powerful, but without the face-to-face, on-the-ground communication, you risk losing a whole set of people,” Jahagirdar said.
Hurley added that generally, voters can be impacted up to three times. “I think there’s two rules in politics, and one of them is that you have three opportunities for saturation,” she said. “You can contact people three times, and every time has impact, but any time after that it’s not as powerful.”
Hurley also said that while she thinks face-to-face contact is more effective, any effort to mobilize students can help the cause. “[The most effective way is] viral communication and having a youth vote and having people’s peers inspire them,” she said. “[But] everything counts. Everything’s useful.”
According to Jahagirdar, the New Voters Project did ground work on Massachusetts college campuses yesterday that included going into classrooms, stopping students and asking that students pledge to vote.
At Tufts, the effort to get students engaged in the voting process has been significant. Since her involvement with Tufts Votes began, Hurley said the group has established a Web site and created an on-campus repository for voting information. This year, she said the group helped register 250 voters through various methods. “On one hand, we’re just more educated about how to register people to vote,” she said. “We’ve been able to disseminate accurate information and make it available to people.”
In 2004, Tufts Professor of Political Science Kent Portney took a random sample of students from one of his classes and asked various questions about their political engagement. After the presidential election took place, Portney verified whether or not they had voted. What he found was that approximately 75 percent of the students had voted in the election, which in comparison with the national average was very high.
“That’s huge,” Hurley said. “That’s really amazing. I definitely think [Tufts students] are more engaged than the average young person.”
Portney said that this election and the candidates involved have fostered an atmosphere for a high youth voter turnout. “All the indications are that the candidates [this year] have an appeal for young people that previous candidates haven’t had,” he said.
But while college campuses have been abuzz with voting encouragement, Portney said non-college youths aren’t affected by the same mobilization efforts.
“Most of the increase in youth participation is due to college students,” he said. “So when you talk about youth participation, yes, that number is going to be up a lot. [But] there’s no evidence that youth participation among non-college young people has gone up at all.”