Shaming voters to vote with report cards

2:01 PM, Nov 2, 2012   |    comments
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Gregory Korte, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- They've tried attack ads, mailers, phone calls and Facebook campaigns. Now interest groups that want your vote are resorting to a new tactic: shame.

Millions of Americans are getting letters showing how their record of voting stacks up against their neighbors' -- in some cases listing every registered voter on the street and whether they've voted in past elections.

"My first reaction was a little shock," said Matthew Kissling of Arlington, Va., a high school government teacher who got one such notice this week. "It was one of those feelings where you're not exactly sure who's invaded your privacy, but someone has invaded your privacy."

The letter Kissling got listed six of his neighbors and whether they voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. And it promised future mailings telling everyone on the block who voted Tuesday. What angered Kissling most is that the letter falsely claimed he didn't vote in 2004 -- when, in fact, he voted in his native North Carolina.

The letter came from Americans for Limited Government, a conservative Virginia-based political action committee that sent similar letters to 2.75 million voters in 19 states.

The mailing "has one goal and one goal only, to increase participation in the electoral process," said ALG's Richard Manning in a written statement. "We firmly believe that people who sit on the sidelines and do not engage in selecting our leaders are abandoning not just their right to a say but are diminishing everyone's rights. We have a stake in the system, we all need to express our views."

It's not just conservatives doing it. The liberal group sent "vote scores" to 12 million "potential progressive voters" this week as part of its get-out-the-vote effort. Their mailings didn't list the voting history of neighbors, but instead gives voters a score indicating whether they vote more or less often than their neighborhood average.

MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben said the idea came from utility company mailings comparing a household's energy efficiency to its neighbors. "We thought, 'What if we applied that to voting?' Turn it into a game, give people some friendly competition. It's the gamificating of voting."

Ruben said MoveOn deliberately doesn't share one voter's history with another. "Always in the back of our head was, hey, this is really powerful, but also totally creepy."

None of the mailings says how a voter voted -- that's secret. But every state keeps records of whether a voter voted, and those are public records in most states.

Research says the mailers work, and in fact may be the most cost-effective way to get out the vote.

"All the social psychology says, if you publicize something, it has a very powerful effect on behavior," said Chris Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa.

Larimer and two colleagues conducted an experiment using 80,000 mailings to Michigan voters in a 2006 primary. Those who got mailings listing their voting history and that of all their neighbors were 8.1% more likely to vote than those who got no mailing.

MoveOn conducted a similar experiment in Delaware, and found the cost per additional vote was $4, seven times more cost-effective than the next most effective tool, door-to-door canvassing, Ruben said.

It's unclear whether the tactic will be as effective in a high-turnout presidential election. And Larimer cautions that the mailings could backfire. When he and his colleagues did their 2006 study, their survey company got more than 300 angry phone calls.

"You don't want to overdo it, or you could have what we would call a boomerang effect, which is where people don't vote because they're mad at you for shaming them," he said.


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