Using mailers as a form of social pressure to urge people to vote is among the most effective ways of driving election turnout, studies show. The tactic, in fact, can be even more potent than door-to-door canvassing.
That’s especially true when voters are told how their voting record compares to their neighbors’. Such messaging can boost turnout by more than 8 percentage points, a Yale study in 2006 concluded, offering campaigns a cost-effective way to target voters in off-year elections when they might not normally cast a ballot.
But even small mistakes in employing the technique can have big consequences, as evidenced by a botched mailer sent by the campaign to pass Proposition CC on this year’s statewide ballot.
The mistake drew outrage and some voters even vowed to vote against Prop. CC in response.
“With campaign tactics like social pressure, when you do them right they can significantly drive turnout,” said Ian Silverii, the executive director of the liberal political organization ProgressNow. “If done incorrectly, however, campaign tactics can actually create blowback and have the opposite effect. … In the future, when people are contemplating using certain tactics, I think it’s important to read the research and make sure you’re actually implementing the tactic correctly.”
Coloradans for Prosperity, an issue committee that raised and spent about $4 million in support of the ballot question asking voters to permanently eliminate caps on state spending under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, sent social-pressure mailers to some 600,000 households in the days leading up to the election. That represents about 17% of all active registered voters in Colorado.
The pro-Proposition CC postcard gave voters at those homes a “B” turnout grade compared to the “A” grade of their neighbors.
MORE: Coloradans for Prosperity is sending people voter “report cards.” Here’s who the group is and what they want.
“Public records indicated that you voted less often than your neighbors in recent elections,” the mailer read. “Raise your grade by voting in the 2019 general election in November. … We hope the public record after the election will show that you took the time to vote in 2019.”
The mailer was supposed to go only to Democratic and unaffiliated voters who missed one or two of the state’s last four elections. But because of a data error, it also went out to people who had never missed an election.
Some people who received the mailer but had never missed a chance to vote were extremely upset. Some lashed out in emails and voicemails. Others took to social media to express their frustration.
“You can shove it up your (expletive),” one man said in a voicemail left with The Colorado Sun, confusing the news outlet for Coloradans for Prosperity. “Don’t you ever, ever tell me how I can and cannot vote, or when or when not to vote. I find this extremely offensive.”
The postcards even became a punch line for 9News anchor Kyle Clark when Proposition CC failed at the ballot box by a margin of 54%-46%, or about 115,000 votes.
“Voters gave Prop CC a B grade,” Clark joked on Twitter.
Coloradans for Prosperity has not commented on the mailer after multiple requests from The Sun.
The 2019 election was not the first time this social-pressure tactic has been used in Colorado.
“It was something that was done in legislative races, I think, in 2014 and 2016,” Silverii said.
“We have seen it done before in Colorado by independent expenditure groups over the years,” said Dave Flaherty, a Republican pollster from the Louisville-based firm Magellan Strategies.
It’s likely, however, that this is the first time the public is so focused on it because of its poor application.
Tyler Sandberg, a Republican political operative, says he has used social-pressure mailers in races he has worked on before, but instead of comparing voters’ turnout to that of their neighbors, he’s worked to educate people about their civic duty. That includes messaging about the fact that members of the military have fought and died for their ability to vote and educating people about the importance of the race they are being asked to weigh in on.
But being more aggressive runs a big risk.
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In some cases, groups sending social-pressure mailers will even threaten to publicize peoples’ voting records to their neighbors.
“Social pressure works,” Sandberg said, “but if you end up going too far you just end up pissing people off. When you start punitively warning people that you’re going to publicize what they believe to be their private information, you end up getting a lot more angry people than people responding in a positive fashion by voting.”
In Colorado, information about which elections voters participate in is public. Campaigns can even figure out at which point in the state’s three-week, mail-in election cycle you typically return your ballot, so they know exactly when to target you with mailers.
And mailers are much, much cheaper than other tactics used by campaigns. Sending a postcard to a voter costs a few dollars, at most, compared with paying people to canvas or staff a phone bank.
Coloradans for Prosperity wasn’t the only group to use social-pressure mailers to try to boost turnout in 2019.
A shadowy, unnamed organization sent out a Monopoly-themed mailer encouraging people to cast their ballots, but not necessarily in favor or against a specific issue.
“Secretary of State records indicate you haven’t returned your ballot,” it said. “Don’t chance your neighbors finding out you didn’t vote.”
The mailer only contained an address, which appears to belong to a UPS Store in Greenwood Village. By not telling people that they are behind the Monopoly mailer, the group is operating in a campaign finance gray area since political organizations are generally required to identify themselves. But since they weren’t expressing advocacy and only urging people to vote with the mailer, they could be in the clear.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office says it received so many complaints about it that they had to post something on Facebook to make sure the public knew state elections officials were not behind the effort.
There have also been other high-profile cases of campaigns coming under fire for misusing the tactic.
In 2016, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential effort was blasted by Iowa’s secretary of state for sending out a mailer claiming voters had committed “violations” in an effort to drive people to show up for that state’s caucuses.
“You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area,” Cruz’s mailer said. “Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well. A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”
Cruz, who lost the GOP presidential primary that year, was defiant.
“I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote,” he said, according to CNN.