Voting & Elections Messaging

In general, progressives seek to make voter registration simpler and more accurate, and voting more convenient. Right wingers try to make it harder for eligible Americans to register and vote. Your argument is based on freedom, patriotism and the modernization of our outmoded voting systems. Their argument is based on the fear of voter fraud, often imagined as fraudulent voting by illegal immigrants.

Whether you are arguing for a progressive reform or against a right wing restriction, begin with a statement of your values.

Say . . .

In America, the right to vote is a fundamental freedom. And because we are the leading democracy in the world, our election system ought to be completely free, fair and accessible.

Why . . .

You must put the conversation in context. When talking about voting, progressives have two great advantages that are too-rarely used by our side:

First, the most popular and powerful value in political debate is freedom. Use it here. If voting is understood as a basic right like freedom of speech, then it should never be curbed unless it risks an immediate, serious threat to public security (shouting fire in a crowded theater). Our freedom to vote should never be limited without an overriding reason—and none exists. If you can win the frame that voting is a fundamental freedom, you’ll ultimately win the argument.

Second, Americans are proud of American democracy and an appeal to that feeling of patriotism will help persuade.

What about Voter Fraud?

If someone tries to cast a ballot by impersonating an eligible voter, that’s a crime punishable by years in prison. Because the penalty is severe, with no real advantage to the perpetrator, this crime almost never happens. And yet, impersonation is the only kind of voter fraud that could be prevented by requiring people to display photo identification.

The problem is, Americans firmly believe that voter fraud exists. According to a Washington Post poll, 48 percent say voter fraud is a “major problem,” 33 percent think it’s a “minor problem,” and only 14 percent believe it’s “not a problem.” Americans probably believe that because we do have an anecdotal history of “voting from the graveyard,” and the 2000 election did expose the fact that some election administrators are extremely inept.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Voter fraud

Illegal voting

Voter suppression or disenfranchisement

Fundamental freedom

Most basic right in a democracy

Free, fair and accessible

Making it harder to vote

Why . . .

Expect the right wing to cry voter fraud no matter what legislation is being considered. The best messaging advice is—don’t say the F-word. You cannot win the argument by educating voters that fraud is rare. Instead, acknowledge the importance of protecting the integrity of our elections and push the debate away from fraud and toward the goal of making elections free, fair and accessible. That poll-tested phrase is discussed in the report Talking About Voting 2012 from the Brennan Center for Justice and the Advancement Project. It works. And don’t use the language voter suppression ordisenfranchisement because it is polarizing; say “making it harder to vote” or “making it harder to exercise our freedom to vote” instead.

When arguing against voter ID legislation, appeal to freedom and patriotism as suggested in the narrative above, and then:

Say . . .

It is essential to protect the integrity of our elections. But in the process, we cannot infringe on freedom; we cannot deny voters an election that is free, fair and accessible. If we require Election Day precinct officials to scrutinize each and every voter’s identification and limit the types of qualified ID to just a few, it will create long lines for everyone, increase election costs by millions of dollars, and make it much harder for Americans who don’t have a driver’s license—including senior citizens and military veterans—to have their votes counted. There are more effective ways to keep our elections honest without making it harder for all of us to exercise our fundamental freedom to vote.

Why . . .

This argument never uses the word fraud and does not dispute the existence of voter fraud. It suggests instead that this particular legislation is flawed. Specifically it makes three points:

  1. Long lines—In considering any policy, people first want to know how it affects them personally. Voter ID will increase everyone’s waiting time at the polls, perhaps by a lot. Let voters understand they will be personally inconvenienced by this law.
  2. Taxpayer costs—Right now any unnecessary government spending is unpopular. A photo ID requirement means the government will have to pay to educate voters about the new rules, educate precinct officials, and perhaps pay for staff or machinery in order to speed up the delays it will cause. This may sound like a small point, but it played a big role in winning the 2012 Minnesota referendum on voter ID.
  3. Making it harder to vote—This is the most important argument but, to be effective, limit your examples to the most sympathetic victims. Average Americans can be persuaded by focusing on seniors and veterans who are lifelong voters; often they no longer have valid driver’s licenses and they would have a hard time getting substitute ID. Swing voters are less likely to be persuaded by hearing about people in poverty who lack identification.

Do not underestimate the difficulty of the progressive argument. Average Americans generally believe the conservative talking points are true. After all, they have to show photo ID whenever they get on an airplane and even when they buy Sudafed at the drugstore. Why not require it to vote? Understand that you start this debate at a severe disadvantage, so you must be mindful of Americans’ beliefs and use the best-informed messaging to win them over.

Progressive Voter Reforms

In most states, the voter registration and Election Day systems are ancient, inefficient and inaccurate. That’s why we need to modernize these systems with processes and technologies that are commonplace everywhere else except in the administration of elections.

Say . . .

No eligible American should be prevented from exercising his or her freedom to vote because of errors or obsolete systems. The procedures we use to conduct elections now were designed for our great grandparents. They don’t fit the way we live or the technologies available to us today. By modernizing the election process, we eliminate long lines, cut costs, make it more convenient for eligible citizens to vote, and maintain the integrity of the voting system. [Online registration/early voting/automatic transfer/other reform] will help make our elections free, fair and accessible for all of us.

Why . . .

Progressives usually want to talk about how automatic, online or Election Day registration helps people who are not registered. They want to explain how early or absentee voting helps people who aren’t able to vote. But overwhelmingly, the audience you’re trying to persuade is registered and manages to vote. So you need to talk about how progressive reforms benefit them personally—for example, how members of your audience deserve the convenience of their voter registration being automatically transferred to a new address when they move.

There are many important proactive election reforms. When you argue for any of them, appeal to modern technologies and modern life. “The system needs to be modernized and brought into the 21stCentury.” “Today’s outdated system is vulnerable to manipulation and human error.” “In this day and age, no one should ever be denied the fundamental freedom to vote when commonplace technology can ensure our elections are free, fair and accessible.”

Right wing argument: Online registration will lead to voter fraud.

Say . . .

We need to ensure that our elections are free, fair and accessible for everyone who is eligible to vote. Nineteen states use online voter registration because it saves money, reduces errors and speeds up the line to vote on Election Day. Those states have proven that online registration leads to more accurate voter rolls, not fraud. It’s time to replace outmoded and inaccurate voting systems with modern technology.

Right wing argument: Early voting is not worth the cost.

Say . . .

Our elections should be free, fair and accessible for every eligible voter. Restricting the vote to one particular Tuesday is inconsistent with the requirements of modern life. That’s why 32 states allow citizens to vote before Election Day at designated places and times and 27 states allow voting by mail for any registered voter who requests an absentee ballot. Both of these increase the opportunity for citizens to exercise their right and fulfill their responsibility to vote. At the same time, by enabling early voting, we diminish the number who vote on Election Day which eliminates long lines at the polls. The fact is, it costs very little to replace our ancient and inefficient policy of Election Day voting with a modern system that benefits everyone.
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