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VA groups use peer-pressure mailers to get out the vote

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PEER PRESSURE: Virginia voters are complaining to the State Board of Elections that some groups are sending them intimidating mailers.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA — Voting Tuesday? Some groups in Virginia are trying to find out, and in some cases they will share your information.

The State Board of Elections has received complaints from Virginians who say the Democratic Party of Virginia, the left-leaning Voter Participation Center and the conservative Americans for Prosperity have sent mailings that could be seen as intrusive and intimidating efforts to get out the vote.

“The chart below shows your household’s public voting record in past elections as well as an empty space which we will fill to indicate if you vote in this year’s election on Tuesday, November 5th,” reads one letter, identified as coming from the Democratic Party of Virginia. “We intend to mail you an updated chart after the election that will show whether or not you voted. We will leave the space blank if you do not vote.”  

A letter from the Voter Participation Center compares a resident’s past voting history with “your community.” Your voting score is “BELOW AVERAGE,” reads one “voting report card” marked from the VPC and obtained by Watchdog.org. The Americans for Prosperity letter concludes with, “After the election, we will re-evaluate your voting record and hope to share it with your neighbors to see if there is improvement,” said Nikki Sheridan, confidential policy adviser for the State Board of Elections, quoting the letter. 

Sheridan confirmed the complaints.

The Democratic Party of Virginia and Americans for Prosperity did not respond to Watchdog.org’s requests for comment. But the VPC did.

“The Voter Participation Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing the participation of unmarried women and other historically underrepresented groups in our democracy,” the VPC said in a statement emailed to Watchdog.org. “We want to make sure as many Virginia residents as possible participate in our democracy. In some of our mailings, we use publicly available information to show voters how often they vote as compared to other voters in the state. This letter is meant as a reminder, and a suggestion, to get to the polls.”

Who votes in what election is public information with the State Board of Elections. Who someone votes for is not.

The League of Conservation Voters Education Fund also dispersed a letter, saying: “The Virginia State Board of Elections official voting records are public information that show whether you cast a ballot, but not who you voted for,” a letter marked from the LCV and obtained by Watchdog.org reads.

The SBE received no complaints about the league’s letter.

All of the groups are technically nonpartisan, but they have political leanings. The League of Conservation Voters has given more than $1.6 million to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe this year, and the Voter Participation Center has come under fire for some of its extensive voter registration strategies. AFP hasn’t been financially involved in this year’s state races, but its political arm did pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign ads against Barack Obama last year.

Pressuring voters by mail isn’t new. Moveon.org sent similar letters to voters in the November 2012 election. It’s a strategy that works — especially when social pressure is involved.

In a study of Michigan voters during the 2008 election cycle, three political scientists sent four different mailers to groups of potential voters.

“The general finding was that as we ratcheted up the amount of social pressure, the effect on turnout went up,” one of the study’s authors, Christopher Larimer, a political scientist with the University of Northern Iowa, told Watchdog.org. “And it went up significantly.”

The first letter simply informed them of their civic duty to vote. The second letter informed residents they were being studied for voter turnout. The third letter told residents that whether they voted was public record and showed a list of the voting history of everyone in the household for the past two election cycles. The fourth letter listed everything in third, but it also indicated whether neighbors had voted.

“The idea was you would know whether or not your neighbors voted, and they would know whether or not you voted,” Larimer said.

It worked.

Residents who received the third mailer with household information were five percentage points more likely to vote than Michiganders who received no such letter in the mail. And those who received the mailer with data on neighbors voting were eight percentage points more likely to vote than those not sent a similar letter.

“This was a pretty cheap and easy way to get a big increase in turnout,” Larimer said.  

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at [email protected].