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LNP -Shaming citizens into voting by disseminating their voter histories may be effective, but it's unseemly [opinion]

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A group calling itself the “Pennsylvania State Voter Program” is targeting specific voters with mailers that contain data showing whether they and their neighbors voted in three recent elections; the letter states that an updated chart will be mailed out after Tuesday’s primary election. “What if your friends, your neighbors, and your community knew whether you voted?” the letter begins. As LNP staff writer Sam Janesch reported Tuesday, the letter “features a symbol that could lead some people to believe it’s coming from an official government source, though it’s not from any county or state office.” The envelopes, marked with a Harrisburg post office box address, are emblazoned with a giant red arrow pointing to the declaration, “Important taxpayer information enclosed.” It is not clear who is behind the mailing effort. Similar letters have been sent to citizens across the United States.

The information — people’s addresses, their voting histories — these mailers disclose is publicly available. But that doesn’t make this voter-shaming effort any less creepy.

As you know, LNP Editorial Board members are big champions of voter engagement. We’ve written numerous editorials on the subject, and have sought to appeal to readers’ civic sense of duty, patriotism and pragmatism. We haven’t been afraid to be corny or pleading or even pestering.

But we believe this letter campaign goes much too far.

“Why do so many people fail to vote?” the letter asks. “We’ve been talking about the problem for years, but it only seems to get worse. 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.”

The letter features a chart that shows the targeted voter and nine of his or her neighbors. It reveals each voter’s address and whether he or she voted in the 2016 primary and the 2016 and 2014 general elections.

A final column with the date of Tuesday’s primary is punctuated with a question mark.

Rarely has a question mark seemed so ominous.

Janesch reported that the Lancaster County Board of Elections was inundated with calls after these letters were received by county residents over the weekend. The Pennsylvania Department of State is looking into the origin of the letters, which were sent in several other regions of the commonwealth. Because voters in other states recently received nearly identical letters, the department believes it may be a national effort.

Lancaster County chief elections clerk Randall O. Wenger calls it “an unsavory tactic,” and we agree.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, also was right when he told Janesch that “there’s a difference in mailings encouraging people to vote and efforts to embarrass people into voting by sharing that information with their neighbors.”

According to Janesch’s report, anyone can purchase the registry that includes each voter’s address, birth date, voter registration date, party affiliation and history of voting from the Pennsylvania Department of State for just $20. It is information frequently used by candidates and political parties to target their voter outreach efforts, Janesch wrote.

So, as a commenter on LancasterOnline noted, “It’s not a violation of rights as it is public record. But it is a violation of decency.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was lambasted for using a similar tactic in the 2016 presidential primary. His mailer was stamped with this alarming tag: “VOTING VIOLATION.”

It read: “You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well. A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”

In 2012, USA Today reported, a conservative Virginia-based political action committee called Americans for Limited Government sent comparable letters to 2.75 million voters in 19 states.

Lest anyone think this is purely a Republican strategy, Politico reported that the liberal organization MoveOn mailed out “Voter Report Cards” to 12 million registered voters in battleground states before the 2012 presidential election. Each card scored the recipient’s participation in the previous five elections and compared it to their neighborhood average.

The MoveOn mailer did not share neighbors’ voter histories. Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director at the time, told USA Today that was intentional. “Always in the back of our head was, hey, this is really powerful, but also totally creepy.”

These methods are part of what behavioral psychologists call “social pressure.”

“All the social psychology says, if you publicize something, it has a very powerful effect on behavior,” Chris Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa, told USA Today in 2012.

“Larimer and two colleagues conducted an experiment using 80,000 mailings to Michigan voters in a 2006 primary,” that newspaper reported. Those who got mailings showing their voting history and that of their neighbors were 8.1 percent more likely to vote than those who didn’t receive the mailings.

So this is a method that works. But its effectiveness only makes it creepier.

We’re left wondering who stood to benefit from the mailer that was sent to Lancaster County residents. And whether anyone who would sanction this kind of invasive get-out-the-vote effort is worthy of voter support.

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