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‘Research Document’ points finger at voting record

November 30, 2018

Jeffery Poole was a little alarmed when he sorted through his mail last week.

A one-page “Research Document” informed Poole that the Center for Voter Information had selected him to be part of a study on voter turnout and that it would be checking voter records after the Nov. 6 election to see whether he voted.

“When I first read it, I thought I’d done something wrong,” Poole said. “I was a little alarmed.”

He said he knew voter registration and election participation records were public. But it just felt strange to know someone was looking over his shoulder, Poole said.

Within a week, the 47-year-old South Huntingdon machinist received two more mailers from the group.

On the second mailer in large print just above his address it read: “Jeffery, where have you been?” The mailer said public records showed Poole had missed voting in general elections three times over the last eight years and went on to inform him that he was voting “less often than 81 percent of the voters” in Pennsylvania.

“This Election Day, improve your record. Cast your ballot,” it urged.

A third mailer that arrived on Halloween said the group was sending it to him and his neighbors to share who does and does not vote. Once again, it urged him to vote Nov. 6.

Poole said he’ll definitely make it to the polls Tuesday.

“It was just a little extra stick,” Poole said. “They kind of reminded me of what I need to do. Now I want to look through different candidates.”

He was among a vast pool of voters across the country that the Center for Voter Information targeted this year.

Page Gardner, a former political strategist who heads the center, said the nonprofit that has been around for the past 15 years seeks to increase voter turnout, specifically among single women, millennials and racial minorities. It has collectively dubbed that group the Rising American Electorate.

“All of our efforts are aimed at getting people to register and vote,” Gardner said.

She said that’s especially important in midterm elections when there is a traditional decline from turnout in presidential elections. On average, the decline among Pennsylvania voters has been about 20 percentage points. Gardner said the decline is more pronounced among the Rising American Electorate.

She said the center has done studies, sampling voter turnout among individuals it targets with mailings versus control groups that receive no mail. Turnout rates are consistently higher among those who receive the mailings, she said.

She would not say how many voters the center targeted this year or how much those mailings cost. But the center’s parent organization, the Voter Participation Center, reported income of $14.3 million and expenditures of $13.5 million in 2016 federal tax filings.

In addition to tapping voter registration and participation records, the center also compares information from commercial databases with voter data to target people who may have moved and neglected to register at their new address. Those people are urged to register and vote. There also are efforts to encourage voters to volunteer to get out the vote.

Gardner said all of the Voter Information Center’s efforts are nonpartisan.

Pollster and political scientist Chris Borick of Muhlenberg College in Allentown said that appears to be true.

“They’re not telling people how to vote, but the probabilities are that in the groups they’re promoting more will vote Democratic,” Borick said. “It is an interesting spot.

“They’re using decent social science research and applying it in a way that is not overtly partisan, but might have partisan impacts.”

Paul Herrnson, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, said the Voter Information Center is among a number of groups that have borrowed from academic research that revealed certain kinds of messaging can influence voters.

“They found negative messaging -- ‘We’re going to tell your neighbors you didn’t vote’ -- has an impact, and people vote,” he said. “What they’re doing is legal. It’s a strategic move to turn out the voters they want at the polls.”

He’s not surprised that mailers would turn up in Pennsylvania. A late breaking, court-ordered redistricting plan created competitive races in many of the state’s new 18 congressional districts.

“There’s nothing illegal about this,” he said. “They’re doing this in competitive races to boost turnout and win a race. This is all about turnout rather than persuasion.”

Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that permitted corporate money to underwrite independent communications in elections, opened the way for a number of well-funded organizations to mount such campaigns, Herrnson said.

Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, said the use of technology and social science research is changing politics.

The same sort of targeted efforts used to boost voter turnout could easily be tweaked to suppress turnout, Dagnes said.

“We give away all our personal data,” she said. “It’s all out there, and they’re using it. As a political scientist, I think that’s cool.

“As a human being, I think it’s terrifying.”

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