How to Change Elections and Influence People

With my background doing community organizing for the dreaded ACORN, I have some experience dealing with people who tell you they simply don’t vote and don’t have any intention of voting.  So, there was a lot I found familiar in Gabriel Pogrund and Jenna Johnson’s article on voter apathy in Monday’s Washington Post.

The hardest argument to overcome is the insistence that one vote won’t make a difference. Sure, we can pull out a political almanac and point to a few elections that were decided by a coin flip. There was an example just last year in Virginia that actually changed which party controlled the House of Delegates. In that case, they drew a name out of a hat rather than flipping a coin, but the point remains the same: sometimes a single vote really does matter.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that these rare examples make for extremely unpersuasive arguments if you’re looking to overcome resistance to going to a polling place and casting a vote.  In my experience, it’s far more effective to concede the point and then make a different argument about how people actually influence elections.

Some people learn better visually, and fortunately I remember an advertisement from my youth in the 1970’s that demonstrates my argument very well.  I did not remember that a very young Heather Locklear was the pitchwoman until I went and dug up the commercial on YouTube. Here she is explaining how you can get more people to use Fabergé Organics Shampoo.

Elections are almost never won and lost based on whether or not one person decided to cast a vote, and meaningful political change rarely happens through the act of a single person either. The problem is that too many people think that their influence is limited to a single choice of whether to vote or not, and they correctly assess that this amounts to virtually no influence at all.

When I grew frustrated with our government after the decision to invade Iraq, I didn’t think it would change anything for me to vote, but I did think it might change things if I organized an army of people to register thousands of people to vote. My efforts padded John Kerry’s margin in Pennsylvania and may have even changed the results of a downticket election. But I can’t measure my influence only by that. I inspired other people to dedicate themselves to organizing work and taught them how to do it well, and it’s impossible to measure what kind of positive change may have resulted from that. The people I touched went on to touch other people, and so on, and so on.

When you explain things this way to apathetic people, the success rate goes up markedly, and your chances of convincing them to fill out that voter registration card go way up.

For one thing, you’re respecting their point of view rather than shaming them or treating them like they’re stupid or unsophisticated. For another, you’re showing them a new way of looking at things in which they are not so powerless and impotent. If they have an open mind, it can be empowering.

But this is also good advice for people who always vote. You can make so much more of a difference than that. If you convince two people to vote and they convince two people to vote, pretty soon a lot of people are using Fabergé Organics Shampoo. And isn’t that what we all want?

The set of all elections decided by a single vote is very small, but the set of elections decided by fifty votes is quite large. And we don’t cast a single vote on Election Day. We cast several votes for several offices and ballot initiatives, so if you can start a process that boosts turnout by dozens of votes, your chances of making a difference aren’t all that bad.

And, even if your efforts seem like they came to nothing, that won’t be the case because there will be an exponential ripple effect as greater citizen engagement begets greater citizen engagement.

So, listen to Heather Locklear. She knew what she was talking about.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at