New York voters have been receiving very sinister letters from their state’s Democratic Party. The tone is vaguely Orwellian: We’ll be watching whether you go to the ballot box.
“Who you vote for is your secret,” the letter, posted by some recipients on Twitter, says. “But whether or not you vote is public record. Many organizations monitor turnout in your neighborhood and are disappointed by the inconsistent voting of many of your neighbors.”
It then provides a quick reminder of when and where one can vote.
“We will be reviewing … official voting records after the upcoming election to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014,” the mailer concludes. “If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.”
— William Gadea (@willgadea) October 30, 2014
“This flyer is part of the nationwide Democratic response to traditional Republican voter suppression efforts,” a party spokesperson told The Gothamist, “because Democrats believe our democracy works better when more people vote, not less.”
So they aren’t the only ones and this isn’t new. In Alaska, voters have complained about receiving a similar kind of letter from a group that received a hefty contribution from a charter-school supporter who wants to elect a GOP Senate (though he disavowed the mailers).
“Why do so many people fail to vote? We’ve been talking about the problem for years, but it only seems to get worse,” the Alaska letter says. “This year, we’re taking a new approach. We’re sending this mailing to you, your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues at work, and your community members to publicize who does and does not vote.”
In Florida, a St. Petersburg blog reported earlier this week on a letter sent by a group funded by the state and national realtors association. “Your neighbors will know,” the letter warns. “It’s public record.”
Yet another reported vote-shaming letter in North Carolina, sent by the state Democratic Party, contains some of the exact same wording as the New York letter.
“Public records will tell the community at-large whether you vote or not. As a service, our organization monitors turnout in your community,” the letter says, according to WRAL in Raleigh. “It would be an understatement to say that we are disappointed by the inconsistent voting of many of your neighbors.”
Just like the New York Democratic Party’s letter, the North Carolina mailer concludes: “If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.”
But this isn’t just a scare tactic thought up by desperate political operatives. Academic researchers have studied and proven that voter-shaming mailers do lead to increased turnout.
In a paper published in 2008, researchers from Yale University and the University of Northern Iowa reported that they had sent letters to voters with a variety of messages — voting is public record, your neighbors will know if you don’t vote, etc. — and what they found is that among people who received the mailers “substantially higher turnout was observed.”
“These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation,” the researchers wrote. In other words, nobody wants to be embarrassed in front of their neighbors.
That experiment has more recently been cited by academics defending the Stanford and Dartmouth researchers who sent controversial mailers this month to Montana voters as part of a different turnout experiment. But the 2008 experiment is still the standard for those groups who want to shame voters to the polls: The Alaska letter’s line that asked “Why do so many people fail to vote?” was pulled directly from the researchers’ material.
It dates back multiple cycles — one could argue at least as far back as the 2004 presidential election’s “Vote or Die” campaign by hip hop mogul Sean Combs and others. In 2012, the influential liberal group MoveOn.org sent voters report cards, which noted if they were “below average” voters compared to their peers, as Slate reported.
During the same cycle, the Toledo Blade reported on letters received by Ohio voters from a group called Americans for Limited Government. It presented itself as a “voter audit” and reminded the recipient that it would be made known if they voted or not.
“We will then send an updated vote history audit to you and your neighbors with the results,” it said.
Reports of similar letters popped up in North Carolina and Virginia that year. Danielle Linder, a Toledo voter who received the letter there, articulated to the Blade why the scheme seems to unnerve its targets.
“I’m not sure if they’re trying to encourage me to vote, or not to vote, but I’m concerned that my neighbors are getting the same letters,” Linder said. “I don’t want them to know I do vote. It’s really nobody’s business.”