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Running an election is challenging enough — you coordinate the country’s largest single-day workforce, you manage an intensive chain-of-custody, you prepare multiple overlapping ballot styles, you convert historic churches into temporarily accessible polling places, you audit and canvass the votes — the list goes on.
But on top of running an election, you also need to convince people to show up.
Voter turnout is relatively decent during presidential elections, but midterms are another story. According to the Election Performance Index, in 2014 Maine had the highest turnout at 59% and Texas had the lowest at 28%. These numbers are decidedly low, and there’s no easy way to raise them.
That’s why Cumberland County, New Jersey took a creative approach: a county-wide turnout competition where the winning municipality earns bragging rights and a beautiful glass-blown trophy.
Addressing Low Voter Turnout
New Jersey, at 33% statewide turnout in 2014, is on the lower end of voter participation, and Cumberland County was no exception. Although Cumberland County has nearly 100,000 registered voters, the 2014 elections saw a dismal 34% turnout.
Cumberland County was determined to raise that number for the 2018 midterm elections, so they held a series of brainstorming sessions on how to motivate voters. “We knew that voter registration was only half of the equation,” explains Celeste Riley, Cumberland County Clerk. “Having a lot of registered voters means very little if just a small percentage of them actually cast votes. We also knew there was no ‘silver bullet’, no single solution. So, we were looking for a creative idea, something different that would spark voter momentum.”
At first they considered a competition between the county’s high schools, but that would limit the impact to eligible 18-year-old high-schoolers, a relatively small population. “That’s when it occurred to us that we should make it a turnout competition between our 14 municipalities — town versus town for the yearly bragging rights of the community with the highest percentage voter turnout.”
The competition was based on turnout percentage so that all towns, regardless of population, could compete. Turnout was calculated using votes cast for the “top of the ticket” race (in this case, the U.S. Senate seat). The Clerk’s office promoted the competition on Facebook and Twitter and received media attention from local newspapers and on the radio. On Election Day, the website updated the scorecard in real time, eventually showing Shiloh to be the winner with a much-improved 62.6% turnout.
At an Awards Ceremony, the mayor of Shiloh accepted the Turnout Trophy, a custom-made glass trophy depicting three hands raised in participation. Celeste says the Trophy is intended to “be passed each year from winner to winner like the Stanley Cup,” and in the meantime, it will be displayed in the town hall of the winning town. For the first year, however, Shiloh wanted to display it where more people could see it, so it currently resides at Cumberland Regional High School — at least until another town overtakes Shiloh’s turnout.
Since 2018 was the “pilot” year, the county measured success against 2014 turnout, another midterm election year with a U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot. The results were very positive. Overall Cumberland turnout increased from 34% to 42%, and each of the 14 municipalities improved their respective turnouts. Maurice River Township, which came in 5th place, had the most improved voter turnout with an incredible 19.7% increase over the 2014 election.
As always, determining the cause of increased turnout is tricky. It’s impossible to say exactly how many previous nonvoters were motivated by the Turnout Trophy. “We know there were other factors,” Celeste says, including new early voting options and a “hot” national political climate, “but we feel it was definitely a catalyst.” Even though elections offices typically can’t conduct randomized control trials, they can still use previous turnout as a benchmark and get a temperature check of what’s working.
Forming Local Partnerships
Like many elections administrators, the Cumberland County Clerk’s responsibilities extend far beyond elections — the office also deals with passport services, wedding ceremonies, real estate transactions, notary certifications, veterans licenses, maps and aerial photos, and more. Balancing these responsibilities makes it difficult to experiment with elections innovations. “We knew we couldn’t stretch our staff too much by adding the Turnout Trophy and all of its logistics,” Celeste explains. So she turned to her community to form partnerships.
Two partnerships were key to the Turnout Trophy’s success. The first, a local creative communication firm, helped Celeste and her team “develop the idea, the branding, the messaging, and the logistics.” The comms firm was a paid partnership, but the budget was modest, and it saved staff time and resources that would otherwise be diverted from important county functions.
The second partnership was with WheatonArts, a local glass design community. “From the very beginning we talked about a single, substantial trophy” to be passed from winner to winner, Celeste explains. “So, we wanted more than a brass cup on a slab of wood.” Fortunately the county had local glassblowing artists who could create a more unique, memorable trophy worthy of annual competition. Once WheatonArts was shown the Turnout Trophy logo with raised hands, “they were inspired and went right to work,” Celeste says, and “the results were spectacular.”
Although most of the public outreach was conducted at the county level, the Clerk’s office contacted the mayor of each municipality and they individually encouraged voters in their towns. Moving forward, Celeste hopes to excite the mayors and see each town step up their voter turnout game. While the partnerships with the comms firm and WheatonArts were crucial for piloting the Turnout Trophy, the partnerships with the municipalities themselves will likely strengthen over time as mayors rally voters to win or defend their victory.
Building a Tradition
The brilliance of the Turnout Trophy, of course, is its potential to become a beloved Cumberland County tradition. Unlike get-out-the-vote efforts that boost turnout for a single election, the Turnout Trophy can gather momentum each year. The “pilot” year established the processes and logistics, and now the county can focus their efforts on hyping the Trophy for future elections. “We have a winning town to hold up to the others as a challenge,” Celeste explains, and she will spend the summer displaying the trophy at events like Fourth of July celebrations, county fairs, and festivals.
There’s no shortage of research, writing, and speculation around turnout, but one contending theory is that community culture drives voter turnout, a common theme among jurisdictions with abnormally high turnout. So an investment in your community’s culture, especially one that builds around tradition and competition, might be key for shifting toward a high-turnout culture. After all, Celeste says, with the Turnout Trophy competition, “the pride of their communities is on the line.”
If you have questions about Cumberland County’s Turnout Trophy, you can reach out to Celeste at email@example.com.
Connecticut has a similar program conducted by the Secretary of State’s office, awarding a “Democracy Cup” for highest turnout by category — mid-size, large town, and city. Brown County, Wisconsin partners with Project Vote to award a trophy for highest turnout in two size categories. There are also turnout competitions among college campuses, including the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Big Ten Voting Challenge.
Another popular way to use competition to encourage turnout is through “I Voted” sticker design competitions. Read our Spotlight on Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, or check out the current sticker competitions in Ohio and Arlington, VA.
Beyond competitions, there are plenty of ideas around turnout. Weber County, Utah and Indian River, Florida each won Clearie Awards for their creative voter outreach, and we spotlighted the website Rhode Island uses to promote voter participation. You can also reference the Election Assistance Commission’s 7 Tips To Strengthen Voter Education Programs, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s series of 15 articles on voter turnout written by various experts.
Finally, we offer a training for election officials on Messages to Motivate Voters, which can be offered in a 90-minute or 5-hour course, and walks you through voter profiles and how to craft messaging to encourage participation.
How have you improved voter turnout in your jurisdiction? Tell us about your experience by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.