Politics & Society

What Is GOTV (Get Out the Vote)?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 5 min read

Political campaigns are about more than just paid advertising, rallies, media interviews, and debates. The most important part of the campaign is getting the most votes on election day, and GOTV is the final, and most important, part of the process.


What Is GOTV?

GOTV stands for “get out the vote.” GOTV is the umbrella term for the various efforts made to get supporters of a campaign to turn up to the polls and vote. In America, citizens can vote in one of three possible ways:

  • In person on Election Day
  • In person via early voting
  • Via mail (either using an absentee ballot or in regions where all ballots are submitted by mail)

In all scenarios, an individual must be registered to vote before casting a ballot, although some jurisdictions permit same-day registration, where a person may register and subsequently vote all in one fell swoop.

GOTV tactics will vary depending on what a campaign is promoting, but the core objective remains the same: getting like-minded individuals to the polls.

2 Types of GOTV

There are two types of GOTV campaigns:

  1. A campaign to get voters registered. Voter registration campaigns inherently offer more flexibility, because a person can register to vote in any location. Typically a voter registration drive will involve volunteers standing out in public, holding all the materials a person would need to submit a written voter registration. Passersby can fill out the forms on the spot, and the campaign will submit them to a local election board. A voter registration drive isn’t specifically targeted toward a particular election outcome. Rather the organizers are trying to get large groups of people registered either because they suspect they may be inclined to vote for certain candidates or because they believe important segments of the population are underrepresented at the ballot box.
  2. A campaign to get citizens to actually vote for a particular cause or candidate. By contrast, this kind of GOTV effort is about getting people to the polls. These campaigns will typically involve making contact with pre-selected voters at multiple points leading up to Election Day—checking in to make sure that the individual voters actually cast ballots. It’s important to note that these efforts don’t directly involve convincing a person to vote for a particular candidate or ballot initiative. The assumption is that these pre-selected voters already support the campaign and they would either vote in your favor or not vote at all. As such, it’s imperative to get them to the polls.

Why Is GOTV Important?

GOTV is important for the simple fact that many eligible voters don’t cast a ballot. In the 2016 presidential election, only 58.1 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. It’s not uncommon for local elections to draw far fewer voters than the general election. For instance, the 2015 race for mayor of Dallas, Texas only drew 6.1 percent of eligible voters.

Because so few Americans vote, the ones who show up have increased leverage. Successful campaign strategists have increasingly theorized that the way to win elections is not to flip voters from one party to another, but rather to flip like-minded citizens from “non-voter” to “voter.”

6 Effective Ways to Get Out the Vote

When it comes to election-specific GOTV efforts, there are a number of popular tactics campaigns use to get people to the polls.

  • Direct mail. This is an early outreach form of GOTV. It involves mailing flyers that remind voters of election dates, ways they can vote, and the candidate you are supporting. Typically these GOTV mailers don’t spend much real estate advertising the candidate or cause: they’re specifically mailed to voters who are already believed to be supporters.
  • Online advertising. This is the contemporary heir to direct mail and tends to be geared toward a younger audience. Younger citizens frequently know less about registration and election dates than their old counterparts, and online GOTV efforts often seek to educate them about the process.
  • Phone calls. Volunteers call registered voters from a pre-screened list. They remind them of their voting options and polling place. This is a popular tactic because it allows volunteers to participate from anywhere there’s a phone. However, it’s considered increasingly ineffective in the era of caller ID and unlisted cell phone numbers.
  • Text messaging. In the era of cell phones, text messaging has proven to be a notably effective way of reaching people. It’s a particularly popular way of connecting with younger voters, who may actively prefer texting as opposed to speaking on the phone.
  • Door-to-door canvassing. This tactic involves volunteers knocking on doors and asking voters face-to-face to show up and cast a vote (or to send in a ballot by mail). Some volunteers shy away from this kind of engagement, but it’s proven to be more efficacious than phone campaigns. Learn more about canvassing here.
  • Driving voters to the polls. Some voters lack the ability to get to the polls on their own. This is particularly true among the elderly, who tend to be more politically engaged than other age demographics. It is legal to escort a voter to the polls, but they must enter the ballot box by themselves.

3 Essential Strategies for GOTV Campaigning

If you want to run a successful GOTV campaign, there are three things you need to pay attention to above all else.

  • Strategic outreach. Campaign organizations want to mobilize their supporters only.
  • Timing. GOTV takes place immediately in advance of and during days on which voters can actually cast their ballots. On these days, a campaign’s field staff and volunteers devote maximum resources and energy to making sure every last one of its supporters votes.
  • Exploit all forms of voting. Every state allows some form of absentee ballot, while 37 allow some form of early voting, including in person, over an extended period of time, which informs the strategies of campaign field programs. In the handful of states, such as Washington State and Oregon, whose citizens receive a mail-in ballot and there are no traditional election day precincts, GOTV begins in the days just before ballots arrive in mailboxes and ends on the last day ballots can be mailed in.

Who Is in Charge of GOTV?

GOTV is just one part of a political campaign, but like all aspects, it’s overseen by a campaign manager. The campaign manager is focused on many other things as well—staffing, public messaging, managing a budget, seeking endorsements, arranging interviews and debates—so he or she may deputize much of the GOTV operations to a field organizer, who in turn relies on a combination of staff and volunteers.

A campaign may also outsource some of its GOTV activities to like-minded groups who support the candidate or cause. These include:

  • Trade organizations such as unions
  • Religious groups
  • Single-issue groups

These groups can themselves employ all the tactics listed above to make sure like-minded people come out and vote (with the assumption being they’ll either vote with your side or not vote at all).