David 'Mas' Masumoto

Voter shaming: What if the neighbors knew you didn’t vote?

Oklahoma employs a public notice of voters that a study shows raises the number of people who register and vote. A person with a bag over their head.
Oklahoma employs a public notice of voters that a study shows raises the number of people who register and vote. A person with a bag over their head. Special to The Bee

I checked the voting record of my friend, who now lives in Oklahoma. I could urge her to vote, lobby for “my” cause by inducing her into participation. Fortunately, according to Badvoter.org, an online site that exposes voting frequency of Oklahomans, my friend is a “great voter!” She actively votes and I need not shame her.

In a pioneering study by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and Christopher Larimer, researchers concluded that using some heavy-handed tactics, groups or individuals could shame people into voting. Their study was conducted in Michigan in 2006 and voters were randomly assigned to receive:

▪  no mail

▪  a mailer that encouraged them to vote

▪  and a mailer that encouraged them to vote and indicated their turnout in a previous election.

The latter was to disclose past voting behavior and especially disclose an abstention in a recent election. It was to shame them into voting. And it worked, disclosing past voting behavior had strong effects on voter turnout.

The research did not examine who you voted for but rather if you voted. Their conclusion was based on this logic: Encouraging voter participation helps increase turnout but inducing feelings of shame had a larger impact. Similar results were shown by door-to-door canvassing, but social-pressure mailing were just as compelling and much more cost effective.

Over the past elections, different groups have employed various methods, all based on a similar premise: Shame works better than encouragement. Shaming those who don’t vote works better than honoring those who do vote. Some have gone a step further: They threatened to monitor whether you voted and also threatened to disclose your nonvoting record publicly.

“What if your neighbors knew whether you voted?” That’s the gist of a mailer that was sent out and was accompanied by documented voting records.

In the original Gerber study, encouraging individuals to vote by mailings raised turnout by 4 percent. But by going negative and informing people that they did not vote in prior elections, participation rose by 6.3 percent. Pride in being a good voter was surpassed by inducing feelings of shame. Warning people that their voting participation is being monitored increased turnout even more.

Recent elections in other states bear watching: They have sought to modify voting by shame tactics.

In 2014, in Alaska and Colorado, mailers were sent out that compared voting records to your neighbor’s voting history. A mailer threatened to mail an updated report card after the election that would tell your friends, neighbors and work colleagues if you voted or not.

In Oregon, during the November 2014 election, an app was introduced called “didtheyvote.org.” You could log on and find out if people you knew voted. Then you could link with Facebook and send a message, urging individuals to vote (and publicly proclaiming your friend has yet to cast a ballot).

The premise is that individuals would be more responsive if their best friend said they should vote. (Some claim this campaign was connected with the legalization of pot initiative, which did pass in Oregon).

Social media has begun to play a larger and larger role. Voting may move into the public arena, individuals can make a commitment to vote and share it with a broad audience. And at the same time, they can shame friends who did not yet vote.

People have pushed back against these tactics. Some campaigns are fearful of threatening people by publicizing voting records. They worry about creating resentment with their “dirty tricks” mailers. Voters may not see such tactics as a grateful inducement to get people to participate. Instead it’s a tool to coerce and manipulate. Shame can work on many levels.

A campaign in New York in the 2014 elections worried some Democratic state party leaders: The use of a “voter report card” could be interpreted as a threatening tone. Citizens may believe their right to vote is a private matter.

The larger question revolves around voter turnout: who does it benefit and where. If we take the view that large participation is how democracy works best, then social pressure to engage individuals will always be better than apathy. Yet heavy-handed tactics may create resistance. Individuals under heavy pressure may react in the opposite way, rejecting the intended result.

Or is this simply a question of social behavior? We live in an increasingly public and transparent world. We are more likely to comply when people are watching.

So please go vote. Or I’ll tell on you.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and the award-winning author of eight books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”