Attn: Apathetic America! We’re Watching You!

Were you one of the fortunate that received a letter similar to the one in the accompanying photo, with an accompanying post card, before the November 4, 2014 election?  Chances are if you are a resident of North Carolina, New York, Kansas, Alaska, Illinois, or Florida, and you are a registered voter with a spotty record when it comes to voting, in one of these “projected-to-be” close elections, you received one.  Chances are you were shocked and outraged at the ominous, threatening, Orwellian, and some would say invasive language used in this mailing.  Chances are, at one point or another, you’ve heard others complain, and get outraged, at the invasion of privacy that is occurring in America, but it’s never affected you, so you’ve always found it difficult to get worked up over.  Chances are, if you were one that received one of these mailings that has now changed for you.

Photo from Jim Lakely's

Photo from Jim Lakely’s

Various election commissioners, and spokesmen, gained some distance from this by saying that voters have nothing to worry about.  Though the mailings benefited the candidates, the candidates, and their election officials did not write the mailings.  The mailings were written by a public relations firm.  The election officials may have approved the mailings, but they did not read them, and they had nothing to do with the language that was used.  Though there is no hard data on the reactions the public had to these answers, it is believed that someone, somewhere, accepts this as a suitable answer.

For those that didn’t find that one acceptable, one election official floated a trial balloon that said that this ‘get out the vote’ campaign was “Used by Democrats to counter the suppression efforts that Republicans employ” –the most prominent of which is the requirement that a voter provide identification when they register to vote.

This election official, a New York State Democrat Committee spokesman named Peter Kauffmann, then added:  “The difference between Democrats and Republicans is they don’t want people to vote and we want everyone to vote.”  If that doesn’t do it for you, how about something along the lines of ‘We all need to do whatever it is we have to do rid our country of the politics of hate!’

If you’re still not satisfied after all that, well, you’re just going to have to accept the fact that you received this ‘get out the vote’ mailer, because you are perceived to be a lazy, apathetic person that needs to be threatened with language that a New York Post piece characterizes as “better suited to a mob movie” that culminates in a “Democrats: vote or we’ll kick your ass!” type of message that may intimidate you into turning off the Minecraft to vote!

If you are still upset after Democrats remind you that “Our democracy works better when more people vote, not less”, and you consider these tactics to be along the lines of public shaming and a “we’re watching you” form of personal intimidation, you’re probably just going to have to well … shut up.  It’s the new way of getting out the vote, as a result of the findings from various behavioral studies, including a 2008 Yale University study, that suggest that these tactics are very effective, so you had better get used to it.

One would have to assume that if most Americans were placed in a room, for the purpose of market testing these mailings, and they were asked how effective they thought these tactics would be in turning out the vote, 99 to 100% of the test subjects would suggest that not only would these tactics not work, but that they might cause a reflexive rebellion.  What would be that form of rebellion?  One would have to guess that a majority of these test subjects would say that they might include the recipient voting for the opposite party, if they had access to the party responsible for sending them the intimidating letter.  “Americans won’t respond well to such intimidation techniques,” is something that most of us would say in our exit interview.

I’m sorry, but you’re wrong, these behavioral studies suggest, and the New York Post piece furthers, reporting that “Such attempts to shame people to vote –what politicos call “social pressure” or peer pressure– has become more common place and was used in the ‘get out the vote’ 2012 Obama campaign.”

The Democrat National Committee (DNC), feared a backlash from voters when the idea of attempting to shame them into voting was first presented to them (circa 2006).  As evidenced by the mailings received by registered Democrats, in 2014, and an October, 29 2010 New York Times piece on this matter by Sasha Issenberg, the DNC is reported to have received enough evidence between 2006 and 2014 to suggest otherwise.

“Before the 2006 Michigan gubernatorial primary,” writes Issenberg, “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 that 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 never been measured.

“Political consultant, and manager of Al Gore’s first Senate campaign Hal Malchow, was intrigued by the results of that initial mailer.  Machow started a direct-mail firm and attempted to coerce its clients, The DNC and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to use these tactics to increase their voter turnout.  As stated earlier, these clients blanched at first, fearing that the language sounded intimidating, and that they could result in a backlash.

“In reaction to those fears, Malchow softened the language of a future mailer sent to over 11,000 New Jersey residents, as that state prepared for a gubernatorial election.  The language in this letter was less ominous “while still making it clear that recipients’ voting habits would continue to be monitored.”  The softened language of that mailer went as follows: “We hope to be able to thank you in the future for being the kind of citizen who makes our democracy work.”  The result was less effective than the original mailer Malchow had proposed, but it increased voter turnout by 2.5%.  Future letters also thanked voters for their past participation while hoping to encourage current participation at the same time. ”

310733477_2cd5109d82The Issenberg article goes on to describe the various behavioral science techniques employed by others, and the history of behavioral science influencing elections, but it does not describe how the language in this mailing went from the softened, thankful language Malchow employed in the New Jersey campaign and the ominous “We’re watching you!” letters that were received by the residents of the states listed above in 2014.

Another website, called Outside the Beltway, doesn’t provide an explanation either, but it does provide a reason stated by a spokesman of the New York State Democrat Committee, a Peter Kauffmann, behind the need to intimidate people.  The exact question put to Mr. Kauffmann regarded why the state of New York would, at least, tacitly approve such a mailer:

“This flyer is part of the nationwide Democrat response to traditional Republican voter suppression efforts – because Democrats believe our democracy works better when more people vote, not less.”

The site also lists the intimidation some Floridians experienced from a letter sent by a group funded by the state and national realtors association that included the message:

“Your neighbors will know.  It’s public record.”

The final “vote shaming” letter the site presented on this site is one received by residents of North Carolina.  This particular letter was sent by the North Carolina Democrat Party, and as the author of the Outside the Beltway piece, Doug Mataconis suggests, it “contains some of the exact same wording as the New York letter.”

“Public records will tell the community at-large whether you vote or not. As a service, our organization monitors turnout in your community,” the letter says, according to WRAL in Raleigh. “It would be an understatement to say that we are disappointed by the inconsistent voting of many of your neighbors.”

Some versions of these letters include an ominous warning at the bottom that anyone that has had a stern grandmother, or a strict nun for a teacher, will know well:

“If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.”

If you had that stern grandmother, or strict nun for a teacher, you know that that promise of disappointment is often followed by a piercing glare, just above the glasses, and into your soul, that may cause adults with a decent memory a reflexive shiver.  Another, similar version of this letter states:

“We will be reviewing (Your) County official voting records after the upcoming election to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014.” 

Remember, while reading the full-fledged letters, and the excerpts, that they are being sent to registered, Democrat voters.  The Republican Party is considered the party of big brother by some, but other than a 2014 letter that Mitch McConnell sent to Kentucky voters that some call intimidating, that after reading numerous times I find difficult to call intimidating, and a 2012 letter in Virginia, I was not able to find another Republican engaging in any similar tactics.

“Who you vote for is your secret,” one of these campaign mailers state, “But whether or not you vote is public record.”

Anyone that has watched the TV series, The X-Files, can imagine these words coming from the smoking man, bad guy –with pictures of Republicans in his background.  To show you how shocking this would be if it were on TV, as opposed to real life, this chunk of The X-Files’ dialogue would be coming come from the good guy —with Democrats pictures in the background— the Fox Moulder character.

The sites that show these letters, report the activity, and comment on the text therein, are careful to add that none of these tactics are illegal.  The letter, with the accompanying post card, even instructs you that this is not illegal with its qualifier, “Who you vote for is secret, but … ”  One has to wonder why they felt the need to include this qualifier?  Did they know how outraged people would be, but they were willing to endure that if they saw a 2.5-to-10% increase in turnout?  Did they fear lawsuits, voluminous calls to the election commissioner, or the secretary of state?  Did they add the bit about “Whether you vote or not is public record” to assure you of the letter’s legality?  If it did, did it also assure you that the letter wasn’t, in any way, treading along the line of ethics?  Did it assure you that this letter wasn’t the least bit creepy, and did it also lead you to believe that it wasn’t, in anyway, infringing upon your right to be apathetic?  The latter may seem a goofy right to champion, but among the many rights we have in this Republic, is our right to sit on our couch and play Minecraft straight through an election if we want to.

A site called Gothamist listed some reactions from recipients of this mailing in the state of New York:

“I’m a regular voter and loyal Democrat, so I was taken aback by this creepy and almost threatening letter from the New York State Democratic Committee that I got in the mail today,” one disturbed reader in Downtown Brooklyn told us.

“Another who received the mailer on the Upper West Side added, “I can’t believe they think this will actually make anyone more likely to vote, and it certainly doesn’t make me want to vote for any of the Democratic establishment candidates.”

The unofficial target of these letters appears to have been registered voters that do not vote 100% of the time, another unofficial target, in most of these states, appears to have been registered Democrat voters that do not vote 100% of the time, and the final unofficial target of these letters –that we assume through inference– was uninformed registered Democrat voters that do not vote 100% of the time that were the primary targets.  (The latter inference is made based on the reasonable assumption that a number of young, Democrat voters had registered in the past for the sole purpose of voting for Barack Obama as president, but that they did not have the same passion for the candidates of a midterm election in their state and locale.  Another inference is based on the assumption that most informed-to-well-informed voters need less prompting to vote.)  For all of these apparent targets, there are other stories of these mailings being addressed to twelve-year-olds, and others that do not meet the age requirement, and still others that happened to live in another state during the election that they were reported to have missed by these letters.

One could say, based on the public shaming and “we’re watching you” form of personal intimidation contained in these letters, that their primary message is that citizens need to fulfill their patriotic and civic duty and vote.  Some might suggest that this campaign tactic dates back to the campaign to elect George Washington, but the “we’re watching you” text, the “If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not,” that the New York Post characterized as a: “Democrats: Vote or we’ll kick your ass!” tactic is new to some of us.

It’s not new that politicians, and political parties, and election commissions, call upon you to vote.  What has not been a point of concentration of theirs, or that of our society in general, is the call for people to educate themselves before they vote.  Friends and family may call upon you to vote, to fulfill your civic and patriotic pride; they inform you of the thousands that have died to maintain this right/privilege/honor for you, but if you decide not to educate yourself –for whatever reason— on the issues, or the politicians, how is going through the motions of voting doing a service to anyone or anything?  You’re filling in ovals, touching computer squares, or punching out chads.

No one is saying, that this duty to inform your vote requires you to buy a subscription to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and your local newspaper to become a political junkie, but that every civic-minded patriot that plans to vote know the basics of how the politicians, the initiatives, and the judges they vote on, will begin to affect their community, state, and country.  If you are one that gets sleepy at the mere mention of the word politics, or you get so irritated by the subject that you run out of the room once your Uncle Joe starts in, and you’re going through the motions in the voting booth so everyone will shut up about you dishonoring those that have sacrificed their lives, don’t vote.

Don’t vote if you have a proclivity for voting for the cutest candidate.  If you are one that has a propensity for voting for the candidate that is taller than their opponent, or one that you’d most like to have a beer with, don’t vote.  Don’t vote for a person that makes you feel more comfortable, but you can’t put your finger on why.  People, and now parties, will try to make you feel guilty for failing to vote, but you should do everything you can to resist heir intimidation tactics.  Don’t listen because you know enough to know that your vote could lead to you voting for the worst possible candidate for your community, state, and country.  Don’t vote, no matter how guilty others try to make you feel for not doing so, because you know that the best thing you can do to fulfill your patriotic/civic duty to your community, state, and country is to avoid inflicting upon them your willful ignorance.

If, however, you are an apathetic citizen that is wearing down under the weight of all this pressure to vote –even if you don’t educate yourself– just vote!  You may not understand it, but you just can’t fight it anymore.  If this is you, and you were further intimidated into voting by this letter, with an accompanying post card –even though you find it hard to believe that all of these behavioral studies suggest this works, and that they will continue to use it in upcoming election based upon their findings– go ahead and vote.  But, take note of the political party that approved this mailing, be it Democrat or Republican, and vote the opposite.  If you are then pestered by an exit pollster, asking you who you voted for and why, tell them, and make sure to tell them that it is based on their precious behavioral studies and the resultant letter of personal intimidation.


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