Days before the May primary election in Pennsylvania, voters in Lancaster County got an unusual letter in the mail. Labeled “Pennsylvania State Voter Report,” it reminded recipients about whether they had voted in the past three elections — and also let them know if their neighbors had.
“After the May 15th election, we intend to mail an updated chart,” the letter said. “You and your friends, your neighbors, and other people you know will all know who voted and who did not vote.”
Election officials and reporters from LancasterOnline, a local news outlet, were unable to determine who had mailed the letters, and one political science professor commented that it was “very unusual to try to embarrass people into voting.”
But in the months leading up to the midterm elections, similar “vote shaming” tactics have become increasingly common — and controversial.
One example surfaced earlier this week, when voters in New York and New Jersey received customized letters listing the elections that they had missed in the past. “It really was kind of like a voter shaming, and I didn’t like it,” Ellen Feldman of Closter, N.J., told CBS New York. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Republican Party sent out a mailer last week reminding recipients that their voting history is a public record that anyone can look up on the Internet. Some voters were horrified: “Now, I don’t even want to vote for my party,” Kelly Ducker, a registered Republican in North Carolina, told WRAL.
In what seems to be a bipartisan source of frustration, some campaigns have been texting registered voters' cellphones and urging them to vote. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in Texas was recently sued for sending text messages to voters without their consent, and a series of political messages that woke up voters in Plantation, Fla., in the middle of the night are now the subject of a Federal Communications Commission complaint. Besides simply finding the text messages annoying, some critics argue that they infringe on personal privacy. “I think it’s frankly un-American to send somebody a message and ask them who they’re voting for,” Frank Creasy of Glen Allen, Va., told WRIC.
Unsolicited text messages come from friends and casual acquaintances, too. Apps such as VoteWithMe and Outvote let users match their phone’s contact list with public voter rolls, allowing them to see what political party they belong to and whether their friends and family have voted in recent elections. They can then send scripted messages encouraging them to vote.
“Great, right?” wrote BuzzFeed News’s Katie Notopolous. “Except that upon deeper reflection, I found this creepy and believe it’s a strange invasion of my and my friends’ privacy. Just because the voter records of our friends (or really, anyone on our phones, which is a lot of random people!) are a matter of public record doesn’t mean they expect other people to look for them.”
Other get-out-the-vote efforts are even more creative — or irritating, depending on how you look at it. In October, Elle magazine tweeted that Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West were separating. It wasn’t true — and the link to the “story” was, in fact, a link to a voter registration website. The magazine apologized after being criticized for the stunt. And as The Washington Post’s Lisa Bonos reported last week, some Tinder users are using the dating app for voter outreach, even though they can be kicked off for violating the terms of service.
The most confrontational form of vote shaming involves asking complete strangers whether they have registered to vote — something that’s typically been relegated to clipboard-wielding volunteers who plant themselves on busy city sidewalks as passing commuters avoid eye contact. In October, the intense fervor that accompanies this kind of proselytizing was summed up with a viral meme in which a woman asks a burglar who is robbing her home whether he has registered to vote.
The online backlash to these aggressive — and typically nonpartisan — voter-registration efforts reached an inflection point on Oct. 23. Because we live in strange times, it featured an anonymous horse-themed Twitter account and a Wendy’s drive-through. The individual behind @HoarseWisperer, an account with more than 150,000 followers that primarily posts liberal messages, claimed that his or her mother had gone through the drive-through and, after placing an order, asked whether the cashier was registered to vote.
The post received hundreds of replies, some from people who shared similar stories of their own: They’d asked the receptionist at their doctor’s office, their UPS delivery person, the grocery store cashier, the bank teller, the person who made their burrito at Qdoba. But many of the other responses were critical, pointing out that the question can be uncomfortable for people who can’t vote because they aren’t legal U.S. citizens or because they have a felony conviction.
Plus, the critics argued, it’s just another demand on already-harried service workers.
“They probably said yes because they knew it was the answer your mom wanted to hear and would end the interaction as soon as possible,” said one Twitter user. “Drive thru employees are timed for their transactions and this helps nobody.”
The comedian Billy Eichner, who in February launched a campaign to get young people to vote in the midterms, clearly missed the memo. On Nov. 3, he tweeted, “Just told a bellhop to vote.” Almost instantly, he was pilloried.
“I understand this comes from a good heart, but please dont do this unless youre about to tip 100%,” said one typical response from a Twitter user. “Service workers are overworked, underpaid, and generally dont vote because they cant afford to miss work. Voting should be a national holiday.”
Eichner later deleted his tweet but wrote defiantly the next day: “If you have enough time to tweet your complaints about the constant reminders to vote then maybe get off Twitter, go canvass, knock on some doors, make calls/texts with @swingleft as a break from these terrible reminders to help us vote white supremacists out of office. And if not I guess you can just keep tweeting while the rest of us do the work that you will hopefully reap the benefits of.”
Over the past few days, certain corners of the Internet have been overtaken with debates about whether aggressively confronting people about voting is obnoxious and patronizing, or if the risk of being perceived that way is outweighed by the greater public good.
The arguments against vote shaming generally go like this: People who can legally vote, but don’t, aren’t necessarily apathetic. Instead, they may have been stymied by complicated voter registration procedures or the reality of working multiple minimum-wage jobs and not being able to afford to take time off to stand in line.
The other side of the argument was succinctly summed up by the political columnist Ana Marie Cox. “I think shaming people into voting is perfectly acceptable,” she wrote, in a tweet that linked to a lengthy Twitter thread about civil rights activists who were murdered or lynched during the 1950s and 1960s. “People died fighting for this.”
Philosophical arguments aside, there’s some evidence that vote shaming can be effective.
A 2006 study found higher turnout among people who received a mailer, like the ones sent in Pennsylvania, telling them that their neighbors would know whether they had voted. “Although we are not advocates of shaming tactics or policies, their cost-effectiveness makes them an inevitable development in political campaign craft,” researchers from Yale University and the University of Northern Iowa concluded in a February 2008 article published in the American Political Science Review.
But their findings also included a cautionary note: People who received the most aggressive mailers, the researchers said, tended to call the senders and ask to be removed from their list.
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