“We’ll know if you vote” mailing causes stir
There’s been a big buzz in blogs and social media about a mailing put out by the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund which shares some public voting records among people in neighborhoods in an effort to boost turnout. A lot of people take issue with this. They feel that whether and when they vote is nobody’s business but their own. But that’s not really true. Individual voting records are public records – not WHO you voted for, obviously, but WHETHER you voted and in which elections.
Politicians from city council candidates to presidential campaign committees have been using these kinds of records for decades to target voters. They can’t hit every door and those that they choose are anything but random. By using voting records, candidates can stop at those addresses where their time can be spent meaningfully and avoid those where the chances are small that their effort will result in a vote. They can save postage by deleting mailings to low-percentage addresses and skip phone calls to people who are unlikely to show up. Think about what this means if you’re talking about a non-partisan February primary for school board or a judicial race, when turnout can be well under 20 percent of the registered voters. Being able to concentrate on those relatively few people who are most likely to be participating is a big edge in choosing how to expend limited resources.
The June 5 recall election in Wisconsin is one that the Democrats, in particular, feel will require a high turnout in order for their candidates to win. Simply put, if the very same people show up Tuesday who showed up in November 2010, then there is a reasonably good chance of getting the very same results — obviously not what they want to see. Part of getting a different outcome is changing the dynamics of the electors who get into the game. Their GOTV (get out the vote) effort has been truly monumental, with constant canvassing and phone banks. The recall petitions provided them with an unusually current and targeted database of contacts that might be sympathetic, but there were also plenty of people who signed recall petitions who don’t regularly vote.
The Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, which supports progressive candidates but works independently, embarked upon an effort to drive voter turnout with an interesting mailing that not only lets people know that others can find out whether they voted in a given election, but also shares information about other voters in their neighborhood. Here’s a copy of the mailing posted by conservative Madison blogger and UW law professor Ann Althouse, who obliterated the personal information (but you still get the idea, if you didn’t happen to receive one of these yourself):
I’ve heard from people who find the piece disturbing and the word “creepy” has come up more than once. Personally, it doesn’t elicit an emotional response from me and there are reasons for that. First, I’ve worked with those kinds of records for many years and so it doesn’t matter much to me who else sees them. I found it no more intimidating than placing the names of recall petition signers online, for example. Moreover, I’m accustomed to the idea that as a public official, I can always expect people to look at public records as they relate to me. And after winning more than a dozen terms of office, I’ve cast thousands of public votes. I signed on for it, of course. But because of that, I find the idea of somebody seeing whether somebody else voted at all – without even knowing HOW they voted – to be a very benign thing. I’ve been praised, scorned and critiqued for my votes and views so many times over the years that the idea of somebody else getting a garden variety customized mass mailing pointing out something about who votes seems like small potatoes. I understand that others see it differently. Even my wife does. She finds my view of these things to be clinical, if not cynical.
“What if the city utility decided that to encourage water conservation, they were going to put out a mailing like that with everybody’s water consumption and estimated the number of times everyone flushed their toilets? What would you think of that?” She asked. Without getting into questions of what might actually be protected customer information, I guess I’d probably put a brick in my toilet tank, I thought – and that would be the whole point.
The thing that people need to understand is that the design and wording of this mailing was no accident. It’s been heavily tested and it works. A 2008 effort like this in Michigan was found to be on par with personal canvass visits in terms of driving turnout, increasing voter participation by more than 8 percent. That’s huge and it’s a whole lot cheaper than canvassing. And if the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund did any amount of targeting toward people that they have reason to believe are “their” voters, then it could conceivably turn a close election, whether those voters happen to like it or not.
Anyway, I found the whole thing pretty interesting, including the reactions that people had to the mailing. For those who are real political maggots and want to get into the nuts and bolts of this thing, here’s a link to the study:
Of the hundreds of people who will read this blog between now and the election Tuesday, that should be about a dozen of you — (because yes, I know how many people click and what they click on.) 😉
Cliff’s Notes version here: http://abstractpolitics.com/2008/05/social-pressure-and-voter-turnout/
Addenda: We ended up having a pretty good discussion of this on Facebook and I’m adding an interesting snippet from my favorite crack research team member, Katie Rosenberg, (who is also my daughter and holds Master’s Degree from Strategic Public Relations from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University) —
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