December 22, 2014

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Mailers reveal neighbors’ voting history to residents

SHEFFIELD TWP. — A Virginia-based conservative group has begun sending out mailers to registered voters in Lorain County detailing not only the recipients’ voting history, but also whether their neighbors voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

The mailer from Americans for Limited Government bills itself as a “vote history audit.” The organization is funded in part by Howard Rich, a New York developer with a history of backing libertarian organizations, according to research by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

A copy of the mailer, provided to The Chronicle-Telegram, informs the voter that the organization audited public voting records and was sharing the “findings of past civic participation in your community.”

The mailer doesn’t say how voters voted because ballots are secret, but whether someone voted is a public record.

The mailer, signed by Americans for Limited Government President William Wilson, also informed voters that the group intends to update its records after Tuesday’s election.

“We will then send an updated vote history audit to you and your neighbors with the result,” the mailer said.

The theory behind the mailer is that voters are more likely to head to the polls if they believe their friends, family and neighbors will know whether they voted.

The idea was tested by researchers from Yale University and the University of Northern Iowa during the August 2006 Michigan primary. The study found that voters who received mailers similar to those being sent by Americans for Limited Government had an 8.1 percent higher turnout than voters in a control group who didn’t receive a mailer.

“By threatening to ‘publicize who does and does not vote,’ this treatment is designed to apply maximal social pressure,” the study’s findings, published in the February 2008 issue of the American Political Science Review, said.

The mailer obtained by The Chronicle was sent to an unaffiliated Henrietta Township voter with a history of voting in Republican primaries.

Another flier was sent to a registered Republican in Avon Lake, who said she wasn’t pleased when she opened her mail.

“I find it utterly invasive and disgusting,” the Avon Lake woman, who asked not to be identified, said.

She also complained that the information about her and her husband’s voting history was incorrect. The mailer she received claimed the couple didn’t vote in 2004, but she said her family lived in another state at the time and actually cast ballots in that election.

The Henrietta Township mailer also contained inaccurate information, according to Lorain County Board of Elections records.

One of the recipient’s neighbors was listed in the mailer as not having voted in 2004 or 2008, but according to elections board records, the woman voted in 2004.

A call seeking comment from Americans for Limited Government wasn’t returned Thursday.

Elections board Director Paul Adams said the information being used in the mailers comes from public records that can be obtained either locally or through Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office.

Both Adams and Husted spokeswoman Alexis Zoldan said there was nothing illegal about the mailers.

“There’s a difference between what is legal and what’s right, and I can certainly understand people are going to be uncomfortable with this going out,” said Adams, a Democrat.

Stephen Brooks, associate director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said people may be shocked to see the mailer and how much information that a private organization has gathered, but they’d also be surprised how much their grocery and sporting goods stores know about them.

“It’s a reality of 21st century living,” he said.

Brooks also said the mailers also might lead people who receive them to talk to their neighbors about the need to vote and for whom they should vote. That kind of campaigning is far more effective than television commercials, he said.

“Just as in sales, the personal (approach) is much more effective,” Brooks said.

Ohio voters aren’t alone in receiving the voting history mailers.

Valerie Kroeger, a spokeswoman for Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, who, like Husted, is a Republican, said voters in her state have complained about the mailers and their accuracy. Some voters thought it had come from the state, Kroeger said.

“We’re like, ‘It’s not from us, so just pitch it,’ ” Kroeger said.

The tactic isn’t limited to Americans for Limited Government, either. The progressive group MoveOn.org announced this week that it would send mailers that compare the voting history of recipients with those of their neighbors.

Tate Hausman, MoveOn’s director of management, said his group’s mailers use a slightly different type of social psychology to spur voters to the polls. Instead of comparing voters with their individual neighbors, MoveOn’s mailers compare the voter with the voting history of their neighborhood at large.

Hausman said the idea actually came from the bills that an electric company sent its customers that showed their usage compared to the average electrical consumption in their neighborhood. The bills led to reduced usage, he said, because it kindled a spirit of competitiveness.

“We were careful to not use the same kind of public shaming or public exposure that these other mailers did,” Hausman said.

Hausman said MoveOn’s mailers will be sent to targeted voters in 11 swing states, including Ohio, nine other states with close senate races and 24 additional congressional districts across the country.

It’s unlikely that voters will get mailers from MoveOn and Americans for Limited Government, which fall on different sides of the political divide.

“Probably our universes don’t overlap that much,” Hausman said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.