Making a success of ‘Bring ID to vote’

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Guest contributor Debbie Hickman is a Marketing Communications Officer at Woking Borough Council, who led the communications for the 2018 Voter ID campaign in Woking.

In a communications campaign where behavioural change was not just desirable, but imperative, what are the key factors to consider to avoid a crisis?

Woking Borough Council announced in September 2017 that it was participating in a Cabinet Office electoral integrity trial requiring everyone to bring approved photographic identification to the polling station before they could vote at the May 2018 elections.

As the news broke, reactions were varied, with opposition predicting widespread voter disenfranchisement and rock-bottom turnout on the day.

The challenge faced by the communications department was to make sure that the naysayers were disproven and that everyone was given a fair chance to hear about the changes and take necessary action.

There was also a need to be totally focused on the facts and not be drawn into arguments about whether the changes were good or bad. Woking had the most stringent of identification requirements, meaning that communicating the changes was both complicated and also contentious. The ‘approved photo ID only’ rule was likened to voter suppression in the United States. Although a totally unfounded claim, to be seen making light of the matter could easily have led to questioning of the council’s integrity.

Final sign off on the communications materials was given in February 2018 leaving a little under 12 weeks of intensive activity to achieve a gargantuan behavioural change.

With the council’s reputation solidly relying on a positive result, we set about devising our approach. We decided to dowse the audience with the message. Every resident in the borough had information dropped directly through their door eight times via our borough magazine, adverts in the local circular, the poll card and mail shots to all electors. Roadshows, college visits, press and TV interviews and paid advertising were all undertaken in a bid to blanket the town, not to mention posters on bus stops and at the train station, and handfuls of branded information deposited at every community hub we knew of.

In total, 99.73% of voters turned up with identification and only one person was recorded to have known nothing about the project at all. One resident commented on a post-election evaluation survey that ‘there are people in space who could have known what was going on!’ so, mission accomplished, to a degree.

However there are always ways that a campaign can be improved and now, looking ahead to 2019, it seems likely that Woking will participate again. My CIPR Diploma Unit 3 assignment was a management proposal allowing me to evaluate, analysis and overhaul our activity in preparation.

There is nothing revolutionary in this article but sometimes revisiting the basics at planning stage is a valuable exercise in ensuring that no stone remains unturned.

Start early, plan well

As with all campaigns the sooner you start thinking about what you are going to do, the better. With this campaign, partnerships were of utmost importance as the message was spread further via third parties.

Even if you are unsure whether your authority will definitely be participating or not, there is absolutely no harm putting the ground-work in as soon as you get wind that it might be a possibility.

Mapping key stakeholders whose help you would like will give you a great head start and will mean that when you get the go-ahead from the elections officials, you will be able to immediately fire off a call to action.

We used our Equalities Impact Assessment to identify a comprehensive list which must have neared 1,000 groups and individuals, and consisted of community and religious group leaders, local charity contacts and, importantly, internal colleagues. The list incorporated anyone who would have a vested interested in knowing more about Voter ID and who would have access to a cohort of electors that were harder to reach by us alone, in some cases with protected characteristics, such as a disability or a language barrier.

We then compiled a soft and hard campaign tool kit to distribute amongst our contact list, and offered personal visits by Elections staff to those who responded to us, to give more information face-to-face.

Don’t forget the staff

As well as working with colleagues to spread the message about Voter ID, it is also well worth keeping polling station staff in the loop from the start as they are vital cogs in the process. This year, the first real correspondence with this key group was at their training sessions.

The lack of communication internally jarred with the levels of activity we were doing externally to raise awareness. It somehow seemed neglectful to leave all communications to polling station staff until the last minute, giving them no option but to cram their learning into a few short weeks.

To ensure that they are up to speed with changes to the year’s process and to avoid confusion and possible errors on the day, we are taking their needs into consideration earlier next time, for example, trialling a regular training update, drip-feeding bitesize information. We will also consider ways to provide more regular information to wider Council staff, to ensure that everyone is clued up about the process from the start, should they be approached by a member of public.

Get the most out of your channels

We had, essentially, three main messages:

  • Bring ID to vote
  • It must be approved photo ID
  • If you don’t have the right ID you can obtain a free local elector card.

There were also a number of secondary message such as postal voting doesn’t change.

We went into overdrive on the repetition of the same message ‘Bring ID to vote’. We wanted to hammer home the main change and relied on people seeking out the secondary messages to ensure that they were fully informed.

In hindsight, trusting the entire populace of Woking to do their homework was probably too big an ask and, despite the potential extra work it will create, this year we are considering tailored messages in the direct mailshots to make sure that different groups of people receive the information that is most pertinent to them.

Direct mail and door drops were the most quoted as how people found out, so it would seem utterly remiss of us to not maximise the potential of this channel, for the sake of a bit extra coordination.

Get those testimonials in – and out again!

Woking had probably one of the single-most ground-breaking results in the entire Voter ID campaign. It blew the main fear of disenfranchisement out of the water and proved how Voter ID could potentially bring positive change.

Direct approaches by us to the local homeless shelter alerted its staff of the Voter ID project and they invited us in to explain the process fully, in person. As a result, ten men, some of whom had never voted in their lives, were put on the electoral register and received photographic ID so often beyond their capacity to obtain.

Shelter staff were then able to negotiate with the Job Centre to make the local elector card a valid form of identity for benefit collection and consequently the men gained access to benefits, housing, accommodation and potentially even jobs that would have been much harder without a form of identification. Yet there was very little coverage of the story, largely because of the conflict with our need to remain impartial.

This is where I called on the managers of the shelter to provide a testimonial so that they could support the project in their own words, thus negating the potential of anything we say sounding like political propaganda. They got to campaign for the pilot to run again and we got some positive support, everyone was a winner!

These are just a few of my learnings after surviving one round of Voter ID communications. There were many more things I picked up along the way and I gained a really deep insight into how much work needs to be done to satiate an entire borough’s need for information to change their behaviour. 

I really recommend giving Voter ID some attention, even if it is just a cursory glance. I’ll wager that it is only a matter of years before the scheme is rolled out nationally so why not get a head start and plan your campaign out now?