Thurston County, Washington creates strategies for voter registration drives

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in September 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it at hello@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


This year, National Voter Registration Day is September 27. On this annual holiday, thousands of groups around the country will be holding voter registration drives -- setting up at your local college, grocery store, community center, library, or street corner. Their goal? To make sure that people who want to vote this November are registered. 

Voter registration drives are something that Mary Hall, Auditor for Thurston County, Washington, knows a lot about. The Auditor’s Office and community volunteers help organize and support registration efforts throughout the county. Recently, by combining community partnerships, strategic promotion, and youth outreach, she and her team have gotten voter registration drives down to a science. 

Part of the scenic Puget Sound region, Thurston County is home to Olympia, the state capital. In the Washington State Capitol building, you’ll find a large bronze bust of George Washington with an unusually shiny nose. That’s because for locals and visitors alike, it’s a longstanding tradition to rub Washington’s nose for good luck. 

Thurston County has about 168,700 registered voters -- but don’t be surprised if this number increases in the near future. The secret isn’t good luck. It’s good planning.

Forging partnerships

Mary is proud of the high voter turnout in the county -- around 80% -- and the local rate of voter registration is on par with national figures, but still her team is always working to increase these numbers. 

Like many other government offices, however, they’re trying to do more with less. “We have limited resources to staff voter registration drives,” explains Mary, adding that “The goal of the Auditor's Office to achieve high voter registration and high voter turnout must now be done with one less elections supervisor.”

Auditor Mary Hall and IT Consultant Ray Jacoby pose for a "graphic campaign." Photo by Valerie Walston.

Auditor Mary Hall and IT Consultant Ray Jacoby pose for a "graphic campaign." Photo by Valerie Walston.

Mary found a solution to the shortfalls of staff and resources in community partnerships. “We identify community partners with similar missions,” Mary says. “The League of Women Voters and the YWCA both seek to promote voting, voter registration, and civic participation, so those partners were obvious.”

These partner organizations contribute a lot to the registration drives. “They help us be the ‘boots on the ground’ during National Voter Registration Day events,” according to Valerie, “and they also help promote events and voter registration through social channels, press releases, etc.” Once the partnerships are established, Mary and her colleagues move on to other prep work.

“We identify areas with significant foot traffic (libraries, colleges, intercity transit centers, etc.) and book voter registration drives and assign staff. Then, we build voter registration kits, consisting of voter registration forms, ‘Register to Vote Here’ signs, ‘I Registered to Vote’ stickers, ‘iRegistered’ selfie signs, and table decor including tablecloths, flags, and table flag stands.”

Table decorated with flags, stickers, pens, and forms for National Voter Registration Day. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

Table decorated with flags, stickers, pens, and forms for National Voter Registration Day. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

Every election official knows how popular stickers are, and materials are another area where partnerships help out. “We utilize promotional posters and stickers sent by the National Voter Registration Day group at each of our drive locations,” Mary explains. This means registration volunteers can give out swag without the expense.

Promotion is key

As important as staff and materials are, though, Mary understands that a registration event needs effective promotion to be successful. To spread the word about registration drives, the Auditor’s Office relies on graphic communications and social media campaigns. 

“The trend is now toward images and, in particular, video,” Mary says. “Social media is a perfect starting point for these graphic campaigns, and we host them on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts. In the past, we’ve had earned media on our graphics, which extends the life and visibility of them even more.” 

In other words, the promotion efforts of the election staff gain public notice, directing even more attention to the registration drives. 

Mary’s office has already gotten positive attention for its new National Voter Registration Day video. “Videos tend to do really well on Facebook,” she observes. 

With effective partnerships and innovative promotion, registration drives in Thurston County have had great results. Last year, there were about a dozen voter registration events in the county, bringing in more than 350 new voter registrations.

Civic engagement for the whole family

But because achievement can breed ambition, Mary and her staff are starting a new project this year: combining voter registration drives with a youth engagement program. 

What does that look like? It’s hard to miss. At an upcoming voter registration event, in addition to seeing friendly volunteers from the League of Women Voters and YWCA, you might meet eyes with a five-foot-tall cartoon ballot box. 

His name is Billy, and he helps get kids thinking about civic participation. Billy the Ballot Box, explains Voter Outreach Coordinator Valerie Walston, is “sad and skinny” when there’s low voter turnout, but he “grows big and strong as voters put their ballots in him.” 

While kids can’t vote, they’re still an important audience for civic outreach: they can begin to learn about elections while also encouraging the adults around them to be dutiful voters. 

Billy takes a selfie with a drop box on the campus of Evergreen State University. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

Billy takes a selfie with a drop box on the campus of Evergreen State University. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

“We use Billy,” Mary says, “to promote ‘dinner table conversations’ among families with children. It is also our hope that children who like Billy will urge their parents, aunts, and uncles to return their ballots so Billy may become big and strong.” He even has his own Facebook account.

Billy has become a fixture in local school and social media outreach, but now he’ll also be making in-person appearances at registration drives. “Our voter registration events will include Billy the Ballot Box bookmarks, coloring pages, crayons, and a five-foot cardboard cutout,” Mary reports. These kid-friendly materials mean registration tables will have something for adults and children alike. 

This year, National Voter Registration Day promises to be a big day in Thurston County. And the partnerships, promotion, and youth outreach engineered by Mary and her team are sure to make it a triumph. 

On the national level, National Voter Registration Day has achieved a lot since it launched in 2012. According to Matt Singer, it’s helped to register almost 640,000 new voters, and already more than 3,600 organizations have signed up to participate this year.

Registration resources

Are you thinking about supporting registration drives in your area? We’ve got some great resources to share with you. 

You can sign up to become an National Voter Registration Day partner at this partnership sign-up page

If you’re looking for voter registration materials, check out this helpful Voter Registration Drive Kit, one of the tools in the Election Toolkit

Finally, Mary has offered to talk with election officials who want to launch voter registration drives in their own areas. You can reach out to her at TCAuditor@co.thurston.wa.us


What solutions have you found for organizing and supporting voter registration efforts in your community? How have community partnerships helped your office run great elections and connect with the public? Tell us about them by emailing hello@techandciviclife.org.