Right-, left-leaning groups use peer pressure to push NC voting

Posted October 30, 2012 6:59 p.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2012 8:12 p.m. EDT

— Two different groups – one of them linked to UNC Chapel Hill – are trying to convince voters around the state to talk to their neighbors about the importance of voting this year.

Both right-leaning group Americans for Limited Government and left-leaning group Southern Coalition for Social Justice are using peer pressure to push voters to the polls. 

Both say their goal is to increase turnout, but their method has left some people feeling their privacy is being violated.

"What my neighbors do is none of my business, and what I do is none of their business," said Christie McKenzie, a Wake County resident who recently received a mailer about whether her neighbors vote.

The political mailing lists her neighbors' names and addresses and shows whether they voted in 2008 and 2010. It then urged her in bold letters to "do your civic duty – vote" and promised a follow-up report after the election.

Although such voting information is public record, McKenzie said publishing it feels like voter intimidation. And the promise of a follow-up report struck her as a threat. 

"Let everybody have their civic duty and have their privacy, and if somebody wants to go look it up, let them do their own footwork. Don't just hand it to them," she said.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said people all over the state have gotten similar mailers recently, leaving them confused and angry.

"It's sort of like Orwellian – Big Brother watching you. If you don't do this, there will be some sort of action," Bartlett said.

The mailings look like official documents, especially the SCSJ letter, which offers the address of the voter's local election board in large letters. Elections officials are getting an earful, but they have nothing to do with the mailings.

One batch is from Americans for Limited Government, a conservative think-tank with ties to the Koch brothers. ALG sent out similar mailers in Indiana and Ohio. Voters there weren't happy about them, either. 

"Americans for Limited Government's mailing has one goal and one goal only – to increase participation in the electoral process," spokesman Richard Manning said in an email to WRAL News. "We firmly believe that people who sit on the sidelines and do not engage in selecting our leaders are abandoning not just their right to a say but are diminishing everyone's rights."

Manning said publishing voter information is a "fundamental tool" to increasing turnout.

McKenzie's letter came from a second batch that apparently came from "Political Consulting Group" of Sanford. That "group" is just a front. Its address is a drop-box, and its phone number doesn't work.

WRAL was able to use the postal permit number to trace the mailer back to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a left-leaning think tank in Chapel Hill. Executive director Anita Earls is a former member of the State Board of Elections. She said her group sent the letter to assist in a research study in the Political Science department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Earls denied the letters were meant to threaten or suppress voting. “This is not voter intimidation. Our goal is to increase voter turnout and encourage civic engagement.”

UNC Assistant Professor Christopher Clark is supervising the study, which he says is a replication of another study published in a "flagship journal." It examines how social pressure affects voter turnout. 

"There’s this idea about social pressure – if people are actually contacted by neighbors or people around them, that actually leads to more voter turnout," Clark said. "The last thing we want to do is to have that be seen as intimidation. Our purpose is not to suppress voters.”

He hadn't given much thought to the possibility that the letters could be misconstrued because the experiment has been done before in another state. "Maybe we should have," he conceded, apologizing for any misunderstanding.

Clark said the 24,000 letters sent out in the study were paid for by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. No state money was used.

Bartlett said the state is investigating both mailers, but so far, they don't appear to be illegal. He also said he knows how the research study will turn out.

"There has not been a positive phone call yet (about the mailers)," he said. "Even if it was a new type of get-out-the-vote effort by using peer pressure in your neighborhood, it hasn't worked."