Will shame drive Alaska’s voters to the polls?

Editor’s Note: As a contentious U.S. Senate race plays out in their backyards, Alaska voters are receiving uprecedented national attention this election season. With that comes an onslaught of campaign ads on the airwaves and voter materials at their doors. The latest tactic being employed to drive Alaskans to the polls? Shame. Liz Ruskin of APRN explains.

If you’re registered to vote, your voter history — whether or not you voted in past elections — is a public record. So is your name, address and party affiliation. But letters aiming to shame Alaskans into voting by revealing their voting history aren’t going over well.

Margie Hall, a nurse and a Republican voter from Eagle River, got a letter from the “Alaska State Voter Project” that listed her voting history, her husband’s and that of a lot of other people the letter claimed were her friends, neighbors and colleagues.

“I thought, well, somebody is being a righteous idiot,” she said. “Why would they think that shaming would make people comply?”

Because, well, it does. That’s according to Chris Larimer, associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. And he’s done the research to prove it.

“We found that when you make people aware of the norm of voting and that somebody else is going to observe whether or not you vote, people are more likely then to vote,” he said.

The letter from the so-called Alaska State Voter Project is nearly identical, word for word, to one that Larimer and other researchers tested in Michigan, right down to the typography and punctuation. In that 2006 research, Larimer and colleagues sent voters one of four different letters. The softest message just urged people to do their civic duty and vote. The most aggressive letter matched the Alaska mailer. It included the addressee’s voting history as well as those of their neighbors, and contained something of a threat by promising a follow-up letter to show the results of the upcoming election. Larimer says they got complaints, but the technique worked quite well.

“As you ratchet up that social pressure, or the sense that other people are going to comply with a particular norm, we found that turnout increases dramatically,” he said, “such that in that last mailing –what we call the ‘neighbors mailing,’ which again is what’s being used in Alaska — we found effects that are similar (to what) you observe through door-to-door canvassing.”

Larimer says door-knocking campaigns tend to increase turnout eight to nine percentage points.

“We found that eight-point effect with just using a very simple mailer, so a much more cost effective way to increase turnout,” he said.

The Alaska letter has elements of public shaming.

“WHAT IF YOUR FRIENDS, YOUR NEIGHBORS AND YOUR COMMUNITY KNEW WHETHER YOU VOTED?” it says at the beginning, in all caps. (The first line of the aggressive letter the researchers sent in 2006 was identical, minus the words “your friends” and “your community.)

A 2007 follow-on study found that shame is a particularly powerful motivator, more so than positive messages. Not that he’d necessarily advise a campaign to use such methods. He says softer approaches, like expressing gratitude for past behavior, produce results, too, and are less likely to result in voter backlash.

Groups on both the right and left have used this research in past elections, by sending letters only to people leaning their way.

A Washington, D.C.-based group America Votes that’s affiliated with labor unions says it’s sending Alaskans letters that employ public information to improve voter turnout.

“We’ve found that using mail that tailors publicly available information about election participation to each voter helps engage those voters who might otherwise sit out in November,” a spokeswoman for the organization wrote in an email. She declined to send a sample letter, saying she couldn’t find one.

The letter from the so-called Alaska State Voter Project, the one that’s caused the biggest stir, says it was paid for by Opportunity Alliance PAC. Its chief donor is 81-year-old John Bryan of Oregon, a retired chemical company executive who is a major contributor to conservative causes.

“I haven’t seen the letter. I don’t know what it’s all about,” he said, reached at his home in Lake Oswego.

He gave the PAC $200,000 in May. (That was Opportunity Alliance PAC’s only contribution until a woman in Texas later kicked in $50,000, according to the website OpenSecrets.org.) In Alaska, Bryan has given $2,000 to U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, but says what he really cares about is charter schools and school choice. He says he’s supporting Republican Senate candidates because he thinks the current Senate log jam hampers his cause.

Bryan referred questions about the letter to Stuart Jolly in Oklahoma, who directs a school choice political operation Bryan founded. Jolly was, until last year, Oklahoma director for Americans for Prosperity. He didn’t return messages today.