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What the Latest Research Tells Us About Passing Ballot Measures

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Melissa Martin knows school voters.

As the survey research manager for The Nelson Report, she has been designing surveys and analyzing their results for nearly 15 years. She talked with me recently about changes in voter demographics and what she wishes all school communicators knew about passing financial ballot measures.

1. Communicate with non-parents and older voters year-round, not just when you want their money.

One of the biggest election mistakes school people make, according to Martin, is spending so much energy engaging parents and school supporters that they neglect to engage their community’s largest and most important voting demographic: non-parents over the age of 45. When she reviewed the voter demographics in 24 states across the country, she found that in all but one state, more than 80 percent of frequent voters (those who voted in three of the last four elections) were over the age of 45! Those voters, if they have children in schools at all, are likely to have older students and are less likely to be engaged in school activities.

Martin encourages education communicators to engage older voters on a more personal level. Find interesting ways to get them into schools and connected with students. She advocates using the tools these audiences trust, adding, “Yes, older voters are on Facebook. Yes, they use technology, but your most frequent voters don’t yet rely on technology as a trusted source of information. Don’t give up on newspapers, printed material and other traditional news sources.”

She notes, “While parents will always be a great resource for support, it’s important to remember how influential older voter populations are in winning or losing elections. The more involved and engaged older voters are now, the better your chances of election success in the future.”

2. Empower younger voters; engage them in the democratic process.

Getting young adults to vote has been difficult for decades, but it is getting harder. Younger people are now painfully under-represented among regular voters. Martin conducted a survey in one Washington State community last month, where only 18 percent of the registered voters were under the age of 45, and that is not unusual anymore.

She points out, “It’s getting harder to reach this generation, and it’s not because of cell phones. It’s because they aren’t registered to vote.”

Martin suggests building a strong culture of engagement in the democratic process among young adults. National politics can feel far away and beyond our personal influence, but schools and other local governments are accessible. Anyone can participate in a task force or talk with a school leader and end up making a real difference in how their local schools are run. When people realize this, they are more likely to get involved.

Coordinate voter registration drives among elementary parents and work with parent clubs to create the cultural expectation that young adults in your community are involved and vote.

3. Give people more information, not less.

The more hesitant you are, the more suspicious your community is likely to be. Research consistently shows that when people know and understand school issues, they are more supportive. So tell them what you’re planning and why!

Keep the public informed at every step in the process and remember to use a broad range of communication tools to maximize your reach and influence. Rely on face-to-face meetings and key communicator networks to build support among your community’s leaders. Use your website to create a public home for all the data and details behind your key messages and to maintain a visible timeline to remind your community of the ways you involved and informed them along the way.

Remember that both traditional and social media can help you build general awareness, reinforce your key messages, and generate grass-roots enthusiasm. Don’t hold back!

4. Stay on message.

When election season starts, it is critical that you remember that your community has a limited amount of attention to give. You almost certainly are not the only story in town. School election messages will have to break through the information overload caused by every other interesting local, state, national, and even international issue.

You will have a much better chance of breaking through that clutter if you identify powerful, meaningful key messages up front and stick with them all the way through. Martin encourages school communicators to be ready when unexpected issues pop up (as they so often do); respond as needed, but don’t get derailed. Turn your collective attention back to your key messages as quickly as possible.

5. Don’t be a “Chicken Little!”

Negative campaigns just don’t work, so stop telling folks the sky is falling. Whether you’re talking about failures in school funding, unbearable pressures from impossible accountability measures, or the hardships of educating students in outdated or insufficient facilities, you can talk about challenges without slipping over into whining or threatening.

If you truly are in a position where an unpopular option like double-shifting or unwanted boundary changes will be required if a measure fails, be extremely careful about how you explain this to your community. Watch your tone carefully. Don’t lecture or scold, and if a forewarned negative outcome comes to pass, never, ever take on a “we told you so” tone. Remain factual, clear, proactive and professional in all your communication.

Article by J.Marie Riche ( Originally published at

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