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Kadner: What if neighbors knew you didn’t vote?

Lockport resident Michelle Secor votes Central Square Tuesday April 9 2013 Lockport. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

Lockport resident Michelle Secor votes in Central Square Tuesday, April 9, 2013, in Lockport. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 11, 2013 6:23AM



Voter turnout historically is low in local elections.

It was less than 20 percent in suburban Cook County in Tuesday’s election.

But would it be right to boost turnout by threatening to “out” non-voters? Do people respond to the possibility of being publicly shamed?

In 2006, three political science professors (two from Yale University and one from University of Northern Iowa) conducted a scientific study to find out.

As part of that study, a letter was sent to registered voters in Michigan that read, “What if your neighbor knew how you voted?”

“Why do so many people fail to vote?” it continued. “We’ve been talking about the problem for years, but it only seems to get worse.

“This year, we’re taking a different approach. We’re sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to publicize who does and does not vote.”

Some residents of Frankfort Township are very familiar with the language of the letter because it is almost identical to one they received this past week.

That letter contained the name of an organization called Citizens For Effective Local Government, which apparently does not exist.

Readers who contacted the SouthtownStar were outraged by what appeared to be an intimidation tactic — someone was threatening to “out” them to their neighbors if they didn’t vote on Tuesday.

The Will County state’s attorney’s office, at the request of local election officials, determined that there’s apparently nothing illegal about threatening to make public on a website the names of people who did or did not vote.

The actual identity of the organization, or person, who sent out the letters to Frankfort Township voters (apparently targeting registered Democrats) is unknown at this time.

But the results of that study by the political science professors, published in 2008, is available on the Internet.

John Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Election Board, pointed it out to me after a co-worker of his arrived at work Tuesday with one of those letters distributed in Will County.

The title of the study is “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment,” and is authored by Alan S. Gerber and Donald P. Green of Yale University and Christopher W. Larimer at the University of Northern Iowa.

The professors noted that historically voting has been looked on as a civic duty, and citizens often worry that others will think less of them if they fail to participate in elections. “We provide strong statistical evidence that social pressure increases voter turnout,” the authors state.

They concluded that the influence of a single piece of direct mail turns out to be formidable when (and only when) social pressure is exerted.

“Exposing a person’s voting record to his or her neighbors turns out to be an order of magnitude more effective than conventional pieces of partisan or nonpartisan direct mail,” their report, published in the American Political Science Review, concluded. “In fact, the turnout effect associated with this mailing is as strong as the effect of direct contact by door-to-door canvassers.”

The professors sent one of four test mailings to 80,000 households in Michigan, encouraging people to vote prior to the 2006 primary election.

The control group received a mailing merely reminding them that voting was a civic duty. A second group was informed that researchers would be studying their voting record. A third group got a mailing displaying the voting record of all those in the household. And a fourth revealed both the household’s voter turnout and their neighbors’ turnout.

The last two groups were notified that there would be a follow-up mailing after the election, reporting on whether those in the household voted and who among neighbors voted in the election.

In the control group, the voter turnout was 29.7 percent in the 2006 primary election. For the group whose letter warned that their voting record would be studied, the turnout was 32.2 percent.

In the mailing where the voting record of household members was outlined, which was a test to determine if people within a household could have an impact on the others voting behavior, 34.5 percent of the test group voted. That 4.8 percentage-point increase over the control group, the researchers note, is dramatic.

For the fourth group, the one whose voting record was compared to the neighbors’ and threatened to notify neighbors how a person voted, the turnout was 37.8 percent, “a remarkable 8.1 percentage-point” increase in voting over the control group.

“In terms of sheer cost efficiency, the mailing that exerted social pressure far outstripped door-to-door canvassing,” the study says.

The professors contend that voter turnout was highest in the U.S. prior to the 1880s and has declined as a result of population shifts and increased mobility — combined with secret ballot rules requiring that party officials remain at a distance from where ballots were cast, which diminished surveillance of voters and the sense that their voting behavior was being monitored.

In other words, when people lived in close-knit communities and felt their neighbors were watching, they voted.

Is it right to shame people into voting?

“Although we are not advocates of shaming tactics or policies, their cost-effectiveness makes them an inevitable development in political campaign craft, and social scientists have much to learn by studying the consequences of making pubic acts more public,” the study’s authors concluded.

So what happened in Frankfort Township?

Did some astute political operative read the report and put its methods into practice? Is it a similar experiment by some university professor?

I wish someone could provide an answer.

But I think people vote when they feel they can make a difference.

Too often, the average American accepts the notion that he’s powerless to change things — even though local elections are where he can make the biggest difference.



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