Social Pressure Mailings: Are They Voter Motivation Or Intimidation?

Aug 6, 2018

Voters in Ohio’s 12th Congressional district are getting inundated with political mailers right now. But there’s one type of mail that some voters say has crossed the line.

Voters in the Congressional district previously held by Republican Pat Tiberi have been flooded with mailers nearly every day for the past month. But when Delaware resident Beth Cerda went to her mailbox and saw letters addressed to her adult children that listed their voting records, she was taken back by it.  “I was furious," Cerda says.

Cerda thought the letters to her adult children were intimidating, especially to younger voters. “One of them (my kids) is 21. The other is 19. And these letters were basically tallying up how many times that they voted in the last four elections. And my daughter couldn’t have voted in any of them until last year.  And it just feels like they were trying to shame them or something like that ….like shame on them for not voting when they were 10, 12, 13 years old," Cerda explains.

Part of the letter she received reads like this: “Who you vote for is secret but whether or not you vote is public record. This year we’re sending you and your neighbors these records to help you track your civic participation.”

The mailer was sent by the Progressive Turnout Project. Priyal Amin is a spokeswoman for that group. She says these flyers, which she calls social pressure mailings, are not meant to intimidate voters.  “Our goal is not to publicly shame people or offend them in any way. We just want them to receive their voting record and understand this is a public record and actually think about it for a second when making the decision about whether they are going to vote to kind of say, ‘My voting record is public record.’ It kind of goes back to our organization’s efforts to identify people and make them proud of the fact that they are voters and they have publicly voted before," Amin says.

Amin explains her organization mailed out more than 87,000 pieces of mail like this and has only heard complaints from a few people.

But left leaning groups are not the only ones using this tactic. Delaware resident Chris Fink got two of these from Republican organizations. One listed voting records of three other people he didn’t even know. “The way it was approached, it really felt like it was over the line with respect to privacy but maybe it’s not, it’s just right up to that line. And then it also felt a little presumptive," Fink says. He thinks it assumes the voter is going to cast ballots along party lines and points out not every voter votes for the party’s candidate every time.

Rob Secaur is with the Ohio Republican Party, one of the organizations named on the mailers. “You know this has been happening for years. I’ve seen this in presidential politics, state politics and across the country. It’s social pressure to get folks to vote. And it’s talking about how important it is to make sure your voice is heard. I don’t think there’s any problem with doing that," Secaur says.

But voters like Fink and Cerda think it’s heavy handed. They don’t like it. And when combined with other tactics…..text messages, phone calls, door to door canvassing, they say they feel like it’s too much. Fink says he was also sent a partially filled out absentee ballot request that he didn’t want. Fink likens this to a home show where vendors offer gifts to get your contact information.“You stop to fill out a ballot to win a free estimate or a gift card from somewhere and then you are incessantly contacted by that company for the next six months or a year," Fink says.

Still, Amin says there’s a good reason why groups continue this tactic. “Social pressure mailings, we’ve seen, increase voter turnout by about 8 percent.”