“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) —

* * *

This mailing and these tactics point to a broader trend in politics (along with marketing and PR for that matter) that attempts to personalize the message or experience. It’s creepy because many people don’t realize they are being tracked. (Here’s a crazy example of how Target can predict a pregnancy:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?pagewanted=all )
It’s fine if everything you do is a mindful extension of your personal brand. But I don’t think everyone realizes that every credit card transaction, every Google search or every vote is going on a permanent record, defining who you are before you even open your mouth. This mailer is a little bit creepy because now my neighbors know I vote in every election, even if it doesn’t matter. But it is just the tip of the mountain of data available to politicians and corporations on the kind of person I am in private. Those implications are creepy as heck.
Link:  How Companies Learn Your Secrets: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?pagewanted=all

9 Responses to ““We’ll know if you vote” mailing causes stir”

  1. Ed Hammer Says:

    As I respond to this, I realize it’s going on my permanent record. Fortunately, I don’t could give much of a hoot. Unfortunately, there are those who do. The marketing of politicians is nothing new. Jim, you’re right, politicians routinely go to voter lists to get the best bang for the buck in their marketing. What freaks people out is exactly what your daughter said. The general public is more than a little naive about the electronic footprints they leave. Things like employers using Facebook to screen candidates makes sense. I suppose if you don’t want to be tracked or have your inner feelings out their for the world to see, stay off the internet, or be aware that what you write, click on, or browse can be known to the world. Indeed, it is a little creepy, but that is the world we inhabit…

    I wish I would have gotten one of those letters. Those people down the road probably don’t vote and I could nail them at a town meeting, when they start complaining again about Town big govenrment.

    I am Ed Hammer and i approve of this message.

  2. William Says:

    My problem with this is what does it do to the unsophisticated and/or paranoid voter? They know I vote, easily extrapolated to “they know who I vote for” and bang you’ve surpressed your own vote. Now if the research says it worked well who am I to argue, even if I don’t believe it. Also just because something is public record does not mean that people should publicize it.

  3. I hear what you’re saying. But making something public, in this sense, involves a very limited (albeit close by) audience. There is “public singing” around a backyard campfire and singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, for example.

  4. I know my information is available to people who want to search for it. I make the effort to shred every piece of mail with my name on it. As a female, I really do not need my name and address distributed to random people in a 6 block radius, especially to the the sex offenders who live a few blocks away.

  5. If you signed up for public office, then yes, of course you’re signing up for some invasion of your privacy. But I never did. I’m a single female who chooses to have an unpublished address and phone number, and keeps a low internet profile. I’m sitting here minding my own business and then one day–bam–people all over my neighborhood now know all these personal details about me.

    There’s a big difference between a public record being available to people who want to take the time to contact [fill in the blank] public institution to look it up, or even an organization buying a public record list to send me a mailer, and some organization hand delivering my personal information with a bow on top to my neighbors’ doorsteps.

    This is NOT a responsible use of public records. It wasn’t when the Government Accountability Board published the recall petitions online for anyone in the world (literally) to see, and it isn’t when the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund did it.

    What’s more, the flyer is ineffective–I have absolutely not been persuaded by this mailer to tell my neighbors to vote. It HAS succeeded in making me tell them to contact the GWPF and complain.

    If you’d like to contact them, too, here’s the info:
    Michelle McGrorty (GWPF Executive Director) 608-467-0300

    Since that’s public record, I’m sure they won’t mind me sharing it, right?

    I also think the Government Accountability Board (which sold the voting data to the GWPF and posted the recall petitions online) needs to set some limits on how its public records are accessed and distributed. I’m not against records being public. But it shouldn’t be a goddam free-for-all. So I’d urge you to contact the GAB as well:

    kevin.kennedy@wi.gov (GAB director)

    And, perhaps most importantly, write your state legislators, too. Find yours here:

  6. Ms. S, that seems like a very legitimate concern to me.

  7. I noticed a difference in response to the mailings based on the age of the recipient. Some of my contemporaries (middle-aged) were offended, found it shaming, negative, and an invasion of their privacy. To my young adult children and their friends, it was a big ho-hum: they don’t have any illusions about their privacy in the first place.

  8. I just received my Registered Voter sheet in my mail. How they can publish my full name and my address with my lot # on it is shocking. I always vote! Except in this election because I didn’t like either canidate. But to me that is irrelevent. I had stalker for about 6 years now. We have sex offenders here as well. This is a very unsafe practice. It should be against the law to publish this. But the freedom of speech is what they hide behind and to he== with the consequences to those on that paper. SHAME ON YOU WISCONSIN GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY BOARD! I think you neede accountability for all the woman hiding from there abusive husbands, people that have real trouble in there lives and don’t need you high and mightys publishing things about us.

  9. Well said, Ms S and Delores. Also think of police offers, parole officers, etc who want their home address unpublished for safety reasons. When other people have more control over our personal information than we do, something is wrong with the system. So let’s fix the system. Stand up for yourselves and contact the GWPF with your complaints, and the GAB and your state legislators to get things changed (see contact info above). Then spread the word to everyone you know who was upset by this horrible invasion of privacy.

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