“Incredibly creepy mail today from the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund,” wrote political blogger Ann Althouse on Friday. The mailing consisted of a list of Althouse’s neighbors, including their addresses and whether or not they had voted in the previous two elections (though not who they voted for); it was sent in advance of Tuesday’s recall election of controversial Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. It’s an attempt to shame people into doing their civic duty by publicly slapping them with a “I Didn’t Vote” sticker. The mailing upset some of those who received it. “I think this is invasion of my privacy and every other woman’s privacy. It’s like – here, this is where all the women are,” complained one paranoid voter to the Journal Sentinel. According to the Journal Sentinel, there were two versions of the flier. The one that Althouse received had a generic message “Who votes is public record! Why do so many people fail to vote? We’ve been talking about the problem for years, but it only seems to get worse. This year, we’re taking a new approach. We’re sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to publicize who does and does not vote.” Other voters, who the political organization presumably trusted were Walker opponents, received a more specific message: “Scott Walker won in 2010 because too many people stayed home! Two years ago, more than half a million Wisconsinites who supported Obama failed to vote in the 2010 election. And that’s how Governor Scott Walker got elected. This year, we’re taking a new approach. We’re sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to publicize who does and does not vote.”
It’s a combination of public shame (you bad non-voter, you!) and crowd-sourcing. And it’s not new. Voting records are indeed public, though it usually costs money to get access to them ($12,500 for a state-wide list, says the Heritage Foundation). Campaigns regularly buy them, and there are previous cases of using them as a form of public pressure. Back in 2010, Mike Lee, a Republican candidate in Utah, did the same thing, though his list included e-mail addresses and was sent out digitally. And he may have been savvier about who was on the list — his campaign only included the names of lazy voters that he thought were likely to vote for him. (It worked.) It’s unclear if the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund has done similar data-mining. They did not respond to a phone call. The Heritage Foundation claims the mailings went out only in the Madison area, which leans Democratic.
Althouse was livid about the mailing: “This is an effort to shame and pressure people about voting, and it is truly despicable. Your vote is private, you have a right not to vote, and anyone who tries to shame and an harass you about it is violating your privacy, and the assumption that I will become active in shaming and pressuring my neighbors is repugnant… This may be the most disgusting thing I have ever received in the mail.” In 2009, a political organization in Virginia was accused of breaking the lawfor exposing voting records publicly. After a multi-year court battle, a judge sided in their favor, ruling that the law forbidding the exposure of voting records was unconstitutional.