Election season is full of surprises. As a registered (but essentially skeptical) Democrat and former campaign worker, I’m used to seeing odd, sometimes aggressive or misleading messaging strategies and get-out-the-vote tactics.
Still, imagine my surprise to open my mailbox on Wednesday night to this bizarre, hostile letter from the New York State Democratic Committee, the very people I’m supposed to be voting for on November 4.
Our records indicate that you are registered in New York County. Who you vote for is your secret. But whether or not you vote is public record. Many organizations monitor turnout in your neighborhood and are disappointed by the inconsistent voting of many of your neighbors.
We will be reviewing the New York County official voting records after the upcoming election to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014. If you do note vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.
In other words, do not disappoint us. “Many organizations” will be monitoring your voting habits, like your nosy neighbors and the mafia.
I contacted the voter hotline identified on the form, which turned out to be the non-partisan Election Protection coalition, a non-partisan civil rights watchdog group that opposes restrictions on voting like Voter ID. A staffer who answered the phone told us that the use of their hotline on the mailer was unauthorized, but was unable to confirm where the mailer came from. I’m waiting to hear back from further comment from them and will update. The NYSDC offices were not taking inquiries at that time.
While the letter is apparently intended to come across as ominous and somewhat threatening, I mostly find it really funny. I can’t imagine that many of my neighbors are anywhere as nosy as the NYSDC, let alone willing to harass me about my voting habits. As for anyone willing to look up my voter record specifically to chastise me for not voting, well, let’s just say I’d feel more creeped out than ashamed. But it still feels like a weird intimidation tactic, designed to browbeat me into voting. Instead of sending out detailed voter guides, calling me on the phone, or holding a sustained and effective get-out-the-vote campaign (I haven’t had a single knock on my door), New York Democrats think they can get me out to the polls by vote-shaming me.
I might be a little closer to understanding what’s going on here if I lived in one of the competitive districts for the House, but I live in Harlem, which has had Charlie Rangel as its congressman since 1971. This seems like the kind of dirty tactic a sleazy guy like Andrew Cuomo would try if he felt threatened, but he’s leading by over 20% in most polls (though he has pulled out all the campaign funding stops in an effort to raise his national profile, and he’s putting the party to work promoting his book, so who knows? Maybe New York Democrats are getting threatened for the sake of increasing his mandate).
It’s possible this is some kind of GOP smear operation, but I doubt it. The mailer has an official “Paid for by the New York State Democratic Committee” stamp on the bottom. What’s more, similar mailers are going out all around the country. In Alaska, an entity calling itself the “Alaska State Voter Program” has been contacting voters with mailers containing detailed lists on the voting habits of their friends and neighbors, though that one seems to have actually been sent by conservatives. In North Carolina, the Democratic Party seems to be using “shaming” tactics like reminding non-voters of their voting history or suggesting they would be subject to a later purity check in the form of a poll. All the way back in 2010, The New York Times seems to have predicted the rise of peer pressure as an effective get-out-the-vote tool. The Times describes it as the brainchild of then-58-year-old Democratic political consultant Hal Malchow, who pushed the idea of aggressive voter mailing on Democrats:
Before the 2006 Michigan gubernatorial primary, three political scientists isolated a group of voters and mailed them copies of their voting histories, listing the elections in which they participated and those they missed. Included were their neighbors’ voting histories, too, along with a warning: after the polls closed, everyone would get an updated set.
After the primary, the academics examined the voter rolls and were startled by the potency of peer pressure as a motivational tool. The mailer was 10 times better at turning nonvoters into voters than the typical piece of pre-election mail whose effectiveness has ever been measured.
Then, as New Jersey prepared to elect its governor last fall, Malchow experimented with less ominous language, an idea he adopted from the Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos. … [The] softer tone, while less effective than the original mailer, increased turnout among recipients by 2.5 percentage points.
I guess, given the fact that the mailers have proven utility, Democrats that complain about them might be being a little hypocritical. Still, it’s a little disturbing that New York Democrats feel the need to pull a tactic straight from the dark side: THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY IS WATCHING. THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY HAS EYES EVERYWHERE.