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Can you shame people into voting?

Building on an unusual scientific study about getting out the vote, a new and mysterious nonprofit organization purchased a registration list of Virginia voters that included their voting histories and the voting histories of their neighbors. Next, the organization prepared a mass mailing with those histories and planned to send them out to 350,000 Virginian voters.

The idea? To let them know that someone--including their neighbors--would be watching to see whether they perform their civic duty next Tuesday.

Critics of the idea called it shaming people into voting. Others complained about an invasion of privacy, though the information is already public.

But Debra Girvin, a suburban businesswoman from the suburbs of Richmond who saw herself as nothing more than an idealistic do-gooder--thought this could be a revolutionary exercise in democracy in action.

Her organization, The Know Campaign, was just about to send the mailings, too -- when inquiries from reporters and another look at Virginia's laws on the use of voter rolls made her rethink the project and cancel the mailing.

"It just seemed like a wise thing to do to say, 'Stop the presses,'" Girvin, executive director of The Know Campaign, said Wednesday night. "Our intention was really to do something very positive. I don't want to do bad things. Nor do I want the perception of such."

The mailings would not have pried beyond the curtains of the polling machine. But they relied on data that does take names of the people who have come through the doors at their voting precincts.

"Below is a partial lists of your recent voting history - public information obtained from the Virginia State Board of Elections," the letter says, according to a story in The Virginian-Pilot, which first reported about the project. "We have sent you this information as a public service because we believe that democracy only works when you vote."

Girvin, a human resources consultant with her own company who lives in Chesterfield, said she got the idea after reading about a study by three political scientists, two of whom are from Yale University, who devised an ingenious way to motivate people to vote. The researchers targeted more than 180,000 voters in Michigan. The voters were divided into a control group and four target groups. The control group voted as they normally did. The other four groups received mailings leading up to the election.

One group got a letter every 11 days before a 2006 election urging them to vote because it was their civic duty. The second group received a letter advising them that their voting habits were being observed. The third got a letter notifying them that they should know that their voting habits are a matter of public record. (Though, as in Virginia, whom a person votes for is a secret, of course.) But this group also received the 2004 presidential voting history of everyone in their household. The fourth group received a letter with their 2004 presidential voting history and also that of their neighbors'.

Girvin said she simply wanted to test the idea in this year's gubernatorial race.

"I wish -- and I'm an idealistic person -- but I wish people would care more about who we're voting for and more about working through the democratic process. I hate people on the right screaming and I hate people on the left screaming, and I think there are a lot of people in the middle who are tired of not being heard. And I think they've given up."

Girvin said she purchased the voter rolls from a private company but declined to identify it. She also declined to identify the source of the grants that funded the project because the mailing was canceled and the grantor's money will be returned.

By Anne Bartlett  |  October 28, 2009; 8:12 PM ET
Categories:  Election 2009 , Fredrick Kunkle  
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