Voter Turn-Out

Today's American communities are facing tough challenges when it comes to locating outside funding sources for parks and recreational facilities. Among these challenges is the fact that capitalizing parks, sports complexes and aquatic centers is increasingly requiring voter approval.

While obtaining voter approval can be a daunting task, there are many communities throughout the country that have led successful campaigns. South Windsor, Conn., for example, recently received capital improvement funding for its Veterans Memorial Park Pool through the passage of a local referendum.

So how do South Windsor and other communities "turn out the vote" to get their referendums approved? By crafting a message that educates, persuades and inspires supporters to make their way to the polls on voting day.

A first step toward fine-tuning this important message is to fully understand the who, what, when, where, how and why of message development strategy.

WHO -- Message Development

Successful referendum campaigns involve many people, ranging from community members to those who will help develop the project plan, budget and timeline.

The goal is to be inclusive of your community and the people who will benefit from the development or improvement of your project. Citizens, elected officials, recreational officials and representatives from service clubs all make great referendum campaign staff members.

One caution: Involving numerous people can lead to disorganization. So, it's a good idea to assign specific roles to each person on your campaign staff.

In South Windsor, for example, the organizing committee assembled a diverse group of campaign staffers. The group included marketing executives, writers, stay-at-home parents, pool enthusiasts and representatives from the parks and recreation commission.

As you are considering your campaign staff, be sure to verify and follow your state's election laws. Many states, including Connecticut, prohibit public officials from advocating positions on any public initiative up for vote.

WHAT -- Message Focus

Cultivating voter support is most easily achieved when campaigns are aligned with the existing values and culture of the community. In other words, if your campaign message successfully taps into a common goal or ambition of your community, your chances of the residents voting for your initiative are greatly increased.

So, how do you establish that core value message? You must be able to answer basic questions about your community's values. Begin by hosting a planning meeting for your campaign staff at which you ask yourselves the following questions.

• What do the residents of this community value above all else?

• Why does the community need what we are proposing?

• How much will it cost?

• Where will the funds come from, and how long will it take to finance this project?

• When will the project be finished?

• Once the project is completed, how will it be maintained?

In South Windsor, the campaign staff was able to establish its core message by answering the planning questions.

Because they knew that enhanced property values were a core ambition for many of their residents, they were able to settle on a message that addressed this goal. The message communicated that the project was virtually ageless and that the aquatics center would positively impact property values for years to come.

WHY -- Crafting the Message

Voter-supported initiatives fail for two reasons -- organized opposition and failure to get supporters to the polls. Even the most on-target message and tremendous communication strategy means nothing unless it can inspire people to take action – specifically, to vote.

You must be sure that your message is tailored to tap into the passions and motivations of your community's residents. In addition to educating them with your message, make them want to take part in your mission. This well-crafted message, combined with a plan for getting people to the polls or filling out absentee ballots, will ensure a successful outcome.

WHERE -- Message Delivery

There are several areas in which strategists recommend you deliver your message. They advise the obvious –- which is where the voters live –- but they also recommend that you focus on areas where voter turnout is particularly high, the demographic is consistent with the focus of the project, and the population has supported similar initiatives in the past.

In addition, your campaign committee should organize presentations to service clubs, aligned groups, neighborhood associations, schools and the media. South Windsor's committee, for example, focused on targeted voter districts in residential areas with the greatest number of current pool patrons.

WHEN -- Beginning the Campaign

Your campaign will actually begin the day your group recognizes a need in the community. In that regard, you may have already started.

As you further define the project and tailor it to meet the needs of as many people as possible, while being fiscally responsible, you are laying the foundation for your campaign message.

And make no mistake, your group will be judged on its actions at this initial stage. Issues such as community involvement and expertise in your planning group will be examined by the voting public.

So, it is important to engage the community, either through inviting individuals to join the committee or through organizing open houses and public meetings.

Although the scale of the project can change the time necessary to cultivate public awareness, many campaigns begin to deploy their message 90 to 120 days before the vote.

However, some states have specific election laws governing campaign timing. Be sure to research state statutes concerning these time-sensitive issues.

HOW -- Campaign Promotion

Time and budget will likely be the most significant factors in promoting your campaign, and although this article does not delve into capitalizing a campaign, we explore several ways that community organizers can execute the delivery of their message once this capital is secured. Successful campaigns typically include:

• Guest editorial columns to local print media. South Windsor organized a very inexpensive letters-to-the-editor campaign. Organizers lined up credible writers and ghostwriters for the letters and planned a schedule of submissions to the local media. The group was able to secure several letters in the newspaper prior to the election.

• Yard signs. In addition to the expense of designing and printing the signs, your group must plan for the time it will take to contact residents and businesses for their permission to place your signs in their yards. You must also be on the lookout for thieves and vandals who can easily bring your yard-sign campaign to a screeching halt. When managed properly, yard signs can be highly effective.

• Direct mail. Mailing lists can be purchased to send letters throughout the community. With enough financial support, direct mail campaigns can be very successful.

• Billboards. Though expensive and effective for a limited period of time, a well-positioned billboard can deliver your message to a large number of people.

• Advertising. In addition to purchasing radio and television ad space, you will need to budget for production of the advertisements. However, fees are frequently reduced for not-for-profit initiatives.

• Door-to-door. Successful campaign staffs target residential areas and set out to talk with prospective voters and drop off promotional materials that deliver the campaign message right to the voters' doors.

• Presentations. Getting out into the community and talking with neighborhood groups, service clubs and related organizations is a common tactic for referenda committees. By delivering a core presentation designed to inform the public about the project and cultivate support, your campaign has a great shot at securing the endorsement of these groups. Beyond endorsing the project, they may contribute resources or assist in other ways to help get the measure passed. Neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed project are an invaluable resource, and you should spend the majority of your time in these areas.

• Web site. In recent years, Web sites have become an essential mode of communication. The Internet is often the first place people go for their information today. A Web site's ability to provide real-time information on the project, combined with the potential to draw volunteers, financial contributors and supporters, makes the Internet an extremely valuable resource for delivery of your message.

This list is just a sample of the tactics that community organizers can use to get the word out and cultivate voter support.

It is common to use several of these tactics to reach the most potential voters. When promotional activities are in the planning stage, consider your audience and how you can deliver your message effectively and to create the response you desire.

Many campaign groups seek professional assistance as they begin to plan for a referendum campaign. Securing these resources can go a long way toward helping ensure that your supporters show up and cast their vote on Election Day.

Jim Halverson is a senior project manager and grant writer for Howard R. Green Company (HRG). One of HRG's most successful grant writers, Halverson has won funding on every grant he has authored for HRG clients. He recently presented a workshop on how to compete for these coveted EPA Brownfields grants at the EPA Brownfields 2004 Conference in St. Louis

Bryan BuchkoComment