New Get out the vote tactics in the US: Vote, or we’ll be interested in why you didn’t

GOTV, that final part of an election campaign where you make sure that all your supporters actually get themselves to the polls, is vital. Elections can be won or lost by the effectiveness of your GOTV operation. It’s all about giving them a reason to get down the polling station. It could be out of a genuine desire to see your fantastic candidate elected. It could be because you really don’t want to let the other one in.

Everyone will be familiar with the “It’s a two horse race, every vote will count” and the breathless “it’s too close to call, vote before 10pm or the Daleks will win” messages. Ok, I made the last one up. But nobody would ever dream of suggesting a direct consequence for the voters themselves. Until now.

Brooklyn musician Jonathan Coulton tweeted a picture of a letter he got purporting to be from the New York State Democrats today:

According to Mediaite, it’s not that unusual with the Democrats claiming it’s part of a nationwide response to Republican tactics:

In a statement, an NYSDC spokesman denied that the Dems were pulling some Tammany Hall-type moves. “This flyer is part of the nationwide Democratic response to traditional Republican voter suppression efforts,” said Peter Kauffmann, “because Democrats believe our democracy works better when more people vote, not less.”

While it’s highly improbable that the Republicans are actively trying to suppress votes in New York City, Talking Points Memo reports that the voter-shaming tactic is common in many states, used by both parties, and seems to be flourishing in this election cycle

Talking Points Memo quotes research which says that this sort of stuff is effective:

In a paper published in 2008, researchers from Yale University and the University of Northern Iowa reported that they had sent letters to voters with a variety of messages — voting is public record, your neighbors will know if you don’t vote, etc. — and what they found is that among people who received the mailers “substantially higher turnout was observed.”

“These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation,” the researchers wrote. In other words, nobody wants to be embarrassed in front of their neighbors.

That experiment has more recently been cited by academics defending the Stanford and Dartmouth researchers who sent controversial mailers this month to Montana voters as part of a different turnout experiment. But the 2008 experiment is still the standard for those groups who want to shame voters to the polls: The Alaska letter’s line that asked “Why do so many people fail to vote?” was pulled directly from the researchers’ material.

We know that what happens in America tends to appear over here. At a glance, this seems to be something that would be right up Labour’s street. They would have to be quite  reckless to try it at the moment, given the current level of dissatisfaction with them, particularly in Scotland, but I wouldn’t put it past them. To me it crosses a line. Implying that you’ll be calling round to get them to explain themselves if the don’t vote is something no liberal should touch with a ten foot barge pole. There are some things that do work to increase turnout that are fine. Asking people a few days out what time they plan on voting, particularly if turnout is historically low, is a good way of getting them to factor it in to their day and not reach 10:05 and curse themselves.

Ultimately, we should aspire to motivate our voters to the polling station by the strength of our arguments and the vitality of our candidates. That the most effective way to motivate voters is often to go negative is not a good thing. These new tactics take negativity to the extremes. Menacing the voters is not the way forward. If I got a letter like this and I wasn’t totally committed to any party, I might be inclined to go out and vote for the other side in a fit of pique.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • That letter is brutally curt and verging on the nasty. “You’d be better watch out, we’ll be sending the boys round to find out exactly why you didn’t vote”. Shudder….

  • Andrew McLean 2nd Nov '14 - 11:02am

    This all goes back to some academic research from 2006. The researchers did a controlled trial of the tactic and, the evidence showed that it worked. See The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg for details. However, note this was in the US. Clearly its only going to work with highly partisan voters, that is voters who would be highly unlikely to switch sides.

  • Paul In Wokingham 2nd Nov '14 - 11:04am

    I used to live in the USA and am on the DNC supporters mailing list. I got this email yesterday with the subject “Commit To Vote”:

    Hey —

    Minimum wage increase: Blocked.
    Student loan re-financing: Blocked.
    Equal pay: Blocked.

    And Republicans are proud of that record.

    If you want to see what real progress looks like, check out this video. And then make sure to commit to vote so we can block a Republican Senate majority:

    Watch this video — load image to see a preview.

    Thanks for standing with Democrats — and progress.


    Amy K. Dacey
    Chief Executive Officer
    Democratic National Committee

    It sounds like this is a reversal of the well-known Republican technique (of Koch Brothers vintage) of voter ID laws to suppress voter turnout in Democrat-leaning districts. While neither technique is to be applauded I’d rather have someone say “we’ll send the boys round if you don’t vote” than “you are not entitled to vote”.

  • Tsar Nicolas 2nd Nov '14 - 11:53am

    “Thanks for standing with Democrats and progress” – that includes Obama having a meeting every Tuesday to compile a kill list of persons, including American citizens, with no charges, no due process, and no possibility of defence, just extra-judicial murder. Yeah, that’s progress.

  • Obama is the Democrat’s Milliband, the advantage for the DNC is that they know for sure he’ll be out of the way in a couple more years !

  • Michael O'Sullivan 2nd Nov '14 - 8:27pm

    This is a bit reminiscent of something that does happen in Britain – maybe it’s more widespread than I naively think. I was living in Hackney at the time of the 2010 election (parliamentary and London borough), and voted in the afternoon during the slow hours. There were two people standing at the school gates with an electoral roll, and they were asking for the addresses of everyone who arrived. An elderly couple were going in just ahead of me and gave them their address without demur – the questioners had no identifying information whatever, and I feel sure the couple thought they were election officials of some sort. I was a bit taken aback and when they asked for my address I said “but who are you? Are you the Labour Party?” One of them said “you have a right to ask” (thanks!) and that they were indeed from the Labour Party. They would call by the houses that weren’t marked off their list during the evening. I thought at the time this was a very dubious practice but never got round to doing anything about it.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Nov '14 - 11:18pm

    Michael O’Sullivan
    It’s quite possible that the “elderly couple” are just old enough to remember when this was entirely normal and knew exactly what was going on. I’m not convinced — in this modern age of postal voting, low turnouts, privacy campaigns and low party loyalty — that it’s still helpful, but once upon a time “tellers” — the people you describe — were an integral part of maximising your party’s vote.

  • The letter does not say or imply anything about “sending the boys round.” If anything, what would be “sent round” is another letter saying “you didn’t vote, why not?” I see nothing particularly objectionable about that.

  • David Allen 3rd Nov '14 - 12:10am

    David-1 is right. There is no evidence of “menacing the voters”. As long as there is no such evidence, this tactic falls – just – within the bounds of acceptability. Whether it is a good idea is quite a different question. Presumably it works in the US. I suspect that if tried over here, it would encounter British cussedness – as Caron says, it would get people deliberately voting against the campaigners just out of spite!

  • SIMON BANKS 3rd Nov '14 - 10:59am

    This may well work in communities where most people vote and where voting is still seen as a civic duty. Over here, I can see this turning into a Russell Brand Foundation naming and shaming of people who did vote.

  • Rita Giannini 3rd Nov '14 - 1:53pm

    talking of voting, my daughter and her boyfriend are registered to vote in Somerset (Somerton & Frome and Taunton constituencies) but are not students anymore, and they have been threatened with a fine of £ 80 if they do not register in Hammersmith. Is this possible? Of course they would rather vote where their vote, and their help during the election, will be most vital to the Liberal Democrats.

  • The bizarre thing is that research in the USA shows that this actually works. Usually this runs in tandem with a standard GOTV letter, and one that’s more polite and there is a comparison – I read a book over the summer which explained this well (don’t have my Kindle with me just now so don’t have the title!) The follow up in some is that an advert is taken out after the election publishing the names of people who didn’t vote, the idea being that the threat of embarrassment actually encourages people to vote.

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