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electionlineWeekly — November 20, 2014

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I. In Focus This Week

‘Vote shaming’ grows in popularity for GOTV
Some turned off by what they see is invasion of privacy

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In the days leading up to the 2014 Midterm Election, our former colleague Dan Seligson became part of a growing trend.

In his mailbox was an official-looking document detailing his voting history and comparing his voting history to his neighbors’.

While the details about his voting history weren't correct, Seligson, like many others, was none-too-pleased about the attempt to “vote shame” him.

“…[F]rankly, it wasn't an incentive to vote. It made me lash out at the organization that thought this was a good idea,” Seligson said. “I was motivated alright, motivated to tell them how much they insulted me.”

Seligson isn’t alone. Since 2008, “vote shaming” or social pressure as academics and others prefer to call it has become an increasingly popular tool in the GOTV toolbox.

During the 2014 election cycle, there were news reports — typically about angry voters — from Alaska to Maine to Florida and lots of places in between about voters receiving “vote shaming” materials.

According to Christopher Mann, director,  of the Academy of Applied Politics and Assistant Professor of Political Communication; J. Patrick Gebhart Professorship at Louisiana State University, campaign professionals began using social treatments back in 2008 after research began to circulate about its effectiveness, but it has taken a while for the use to spread.

Mann said it’s taken a while to catch on because political and civic groups were initially cautious about backlash against the organization sending this kind of mailing. In recent years, organizations have become more willing to take this risk - or learned that the risk is minimal. 

Access to a voter’s history is a by-product of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 which required states to create statewide voter registration databases making it easier for campaigns and others to gain access to voter information in one database instead of reaching out to each jurisdiction within a state.

“I choose to vote in everything. But I have the right not to vote,” Seligson said. “To me it's a duty. But to remind people that whether or not you vote is public record raises a lot of privacy issues. Do they know for whom I voted? I know that they don't but it might confuse others. “

According to Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, two voters were so frustrated with the mailers they received that they requested their voter registration be cancelled.

“We did receive complaints from voters. We let them know the mailing did not come from the division and that the division does not endorse the use the statewide list in this matter,” Fenumiai said. “However, according to state law, it is not illegal. We also let them know that the organization responsible for the emails or mail they received was in no way affiliated with the State of Alaska, Division of Elections.”

Fenumiai said the mailings voters in Alaska received were extremely deceptive because the outside envelope had a red arrow with IMPORTANT TAX PAYER INFORMATION ENCLOSED written in red.

Like Seligson, some voters were bothered with what they perceived as incorrect information about their voting histories. The mailers fail to take into account if someone is a new citizen and voting in their first election, or if someone has moved recently.

“I got one out of four bars, when, honestly, I'm super voter. I vote in regional, local, national, any election you hold, I'll vote in it,” Seligson said. “Because I moved in 2011, my federal election records indicate that, in Arlington, Mass., I voted in the November 2012 election and that's it. but that's completely wrong. I voted in every federal election since 1990…”

Despite voters’ displeasure with the practice and elections administrator’s frustration, Mann said there is evidence that social pressure does work to increase turnout.

“Social pressure voter mobilization treatments increase turnout consistently in field experiments using randomized controlled trial designs to measure their effect. It is difficult to compare experiments about different tactics done in different places and/or elections, but the academic research is nonetheless clear that social pressure tactics are one of the most effective ways to increase voter turnout - perhaps the most effective tactic,” Mann said. “Moreover, there is evidence the mobilization effect persists beyond the election in which the treatment is delivered.”

While it may encourage turnout, could there be enough backlash to social pressure (social pressure on social pressure?!) that legislators may consider altering what information is publicly available in state voter registration databases?

According to Wendy Underhill at the National Conference of State Legislatures, there doesn’t appear to be any existing law or pending legislation exempting a voter’s voting history from the public realm.

Mann doesn’t think that we are likely to see any successful legislation at the state or federal level making vote history private.

“Vote history information is the most valuable data provided by election administrators to campaigns,” Mann said. “Members of Congress and state legislators would be heavily lobbied by their campaign advisors to oppose restricting access to this information. And the pressure would be bi-partisan: neither party's campaign professionals want to lose access to this information.”

Mann said it would take much higher levels of public concern about social pressure treatments than we have seen so far to persuade legislator-candidates to restrict access to vote history.

“We may see proposals to do so, but I'd bet on any such bills being buried in committees or other legislative procedural dead-ends,” Mann said.

Editor's Note: Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, there will be no eletionlineWeekly on November 27 and no electionlineToday on November 27 and 28. We hope you have a very Happy Thanksgiving with friends and family and we hope everyone gets a well-deserved break after the election.