How one group pushed young Latino voters to register: Letting them Google how to do it

By Adam Wollner
McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS
People wait in a long line Oct. 13 to vote at an early voting location at the Renaissance Austin Hotel.

WASHINGTON - A group of progressives think they have unlocked a more effective way to register scores of young Latino voters: Let them do most of the legwork on their own.

The nonprofit organization Voto Latino, working with the Democratic digital marketing firm Rising Tide Interactive, ran a series of targeted online video ads ahead of voter registration deadlines in the 2020 election in three key Latino-heavy states - Florida, Texas and Arizona.

Instead of providing viewers with detailed instructions or directing them to a particular website, the public service announcement-style ads simply informed them of the registration deadline to vote in the presidential election. The idea was that younger people in general were capable of finding the information themselves on Google, and would be more likely to follow through and register if they took the time to search for it.

“Monday is the voter registration deadline in Arizona. This means that to vote in the presidential election, you have until this Monday to make sure you’re registered to vote,” said the narrator of a Voto Latino ad that ran in Arizona ahead of the Oct. 5 deadline. “Registering to vote is quick, easy and important. But you only have until Monday to get it done.”

It was an unconventional strategy. Typically, political groups actively push potential voters to click on ads on social media sites like Facebook to lead them to a specific place to register, while deploying video ads to persuade them to support one candidate over another.

But officials with Voto Latino and Rising Tide found that pairing informational video ads geared toward younger Latinos on platforms such as YouTube, sports sites and gaming apps with the more traditional ads on Facebook had a clear impact.

Ameer Patel, Voto Latino’s director of data and analytics, said the campaign resulted in upward of 65,000 new voter registrants over just five days in the closely divided states of Arizona, Florida and Texas.

“Inform them at the right place and the right time, and they will take the action on their own,” Patel said. “There’s a high correlation between, if you get someone to search, they will register.”

Officials with Voto Latino and Rising Tide now argue that the ad campaign could provide a blueprint heading into the 2022 midterm elections and beyond for Democrats as they seek to make further inroads with young and Latino voters, who are critical to the party’s coalition but historically turn out infrequently.

“This is a template and a strategy that is going to be used over and over again going forward,” said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide.

Nationally, Latino voters under the age of 30 only made up around 4% of the overall electorate, up slightly from 2016, according to exit polls. But they are becoming more important to Democrats’ success as increasingly diverse states like Arizona, Texas and Georgia emerge as battlegrounds.

The outcome of Voto Latino’s November strategy encouraged them to invest in similar ads for the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, which has a small but growing Latino population.

The video ads played an even greater role after Google, Facebook and other social media sites implemented political ad bans after the November election. Patel said their ads, which ran for one week, helped register at least 10,000 new voters ahead of the twin Jan. 5 Georgia elections, both of which were decided by less than 100,000 votes and gave Democrats control of the Senate.

“Groups like Voto Latino were vital to the successful team effort to turn out the most diverse electorate in Georgia runoff history,” said Hillary Holley, the organizing director for Fair Fight, a national voting rights group based in Georgia. “Voto Latino’s innovative and culturally competent voter contract strategies helped drive Latinx turnout beyond expectations, and we are proud to have supported that critical work.”

Voto Latino and Rising Tide first tested their new ad theory ahead of the voter registration deadline for the Texas primary elections in February 2020. The groups conducted a study that found that adults in Texas who saw their informative ads aimed at younger Latinos were nine times more likely to search for voter registration terms than those who had not.

Next, the groups wanted to determine how likely those ad viewers were to actually complete the registration process after searching for the information. So they partnered with the progressive analytics firm Bluelabs to run a live scientific experiment over 10 days in Florida ahead of the state’s July primary registration deadline.

The experiment set up three groups: one that was exposed to the informational video ads and the more traditional Facebook ads, one that was exposed to just Facebook ads, and one group that wasn’t exposed to either.

The results showed that young Latinos in the group that was exposed to both types of ads were roughly 16% more likely to register to vote than the group that wasn’t shown any ads. Meanwhile, the experiment didn’t find a statistical difference between the group with just Facebook ads and the group without any ads in terms of their likelihood to register.

“Normally you want people to go to your site. But they don’t want to disrupt their viewing experience to click on an ad,” Patel said. “Just getting people information at the moment they need it leads to a more effective campaign.”

The results provided Voto Latino with enough confidence to spend $1.2 million on the informative video ads across Arizona, Florida, Texas and eventually Georgia. That campaign only accounted for a fraction of the group’s overall efforts in the 2020 elections. Voto Latino spent a total of $15 million on registration, and helped sign up more than 600,000 new voters combined in 11 states.

But officials with the group said the ads will be a much more prominent part of their strategy moving forward as Democrats aim to keep states like Arizona and Georgia in their column and make gains in places like Florida and Texas, where Republicans performed unexpectedly well with Latino voters in 2020.

“The power of youth Latino turnout is just absolutely enormous,” Kaplan said. “In terms of flipping states like Arizona, that is the whole ballgame.”