Politics

Political Groups Confuse And Worry Voters With ‘They Know If You Vote’ Message

A mailer received by Melissa Sheley  the she worried may intimidate others from voting.
A mailer received by Melissa Sheley the she worried may intimidate others from voting.
Credit Courtesy / Melissa Sheley
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Melissa Sheley of Decatur was disturbed by something when she read through her mail this week.

She found a red, white and blue mailer with the word “VOTE” in bold, cartoon-like font on the front, but just to the side were the words “YOUR VOTING RECORD IS PUBLIC.”

The mailer also read, “Don’t let your family, friends, and neighbors down. Set an example and vote on Tuesday, November 6th.”

Sheley worried the mailer might be misleading.

“It just comes across as very threatening to me, and I could see where some people who are not as forthright as myself would be a little intimidated about going to the polls when you saw something like that,” Shely said.

On the back in smaller print, the mailer explained, “Remember, how you vote is private, but whether or not you vote is a matter of public record. You may be contacted after the election on November 6th and asked about your voting experience.”

The backside of a mailer received by Melissa Sheley in Decatur. (Courtesy of Melissa Sheley)

Sheley said in her personal life she’s happy to talk about who she votes for, but she worries that kind of transparency would have consequences in her public life.

“I work in human resources,” she said, “and so we’re supposed to stay very impartial.”

In all states and the District of Columbia, voting secrecy is guaranteed by law, according to a 2016 study by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

In at least some states, including Georgia, information about which party a voter tends to support is publically available. But, not a voters individual choices in a primary or general election. So, whether someone votes is typically public information, but not who they voted for.

On Facebook and in the mail, political groups around the country are letting people know at least part of their voting record is public, and even encouraging them to look up the records of people they know.

A Facebook ad paid for by a group called Public Voting Record. (Courtesy of ProPublica Facebook Ad Collector)

The mailer Sheley received originated from Georgia Engaged, a group that advocates for liberal causes, and supports Democratic candidates.

“It’s a part of a new wave of voter accountability that we want people to know about,” said Leslie Small, the group’s executive director in an email.

“We wanted to let voters know that their vote is public record because increasingly friends, family and peers are using public voting information to encourage and remind people to vote,” Small said.

Early voting turnout in Georgia is more than double what it was in 2014 and Small said “that’s partially due to efforts like ours to encourage voters to vote and talk to their friends and neighbors about voting.”

Mailers with similar, sometimes more ominous messages, have been sent in other states.

According to a story in New Mexico In Depth, one mailer from the New Mexico Republican Party included this topline: “When Democrats win the election and you didn’t do your part to stop it … Your neighbors will know.”

An app called “Vote With Me” provides general election information, and also draws from the phone contacts of the person who downloaded the app, showing their voting records, registration information, and partisan leaning.

One ad on Facebook, paid for by “Turnout Kansas,” includes what looks like a satellite image with blue and red location indicators, and the phrase “THEY KNOW IF YOU VOTE.”

A Facebook ad paid for by the group “Turnout Kansas.” (Courtesy of ProPublica Facebook Ad Collector )

The ad was captured by ProPublica’s Facebook Political Ad Collector.

“Technology has advanced,” the “Turnout Kansas” ad says. “Not even the smallest target can escape. The target is YOU. Whether you vote or not is public record. Be a voter by clicking below.”

The ad links to a Republican website.

Another Facebook ad paid for by a group called Public Voting Record links to a database where simply inputting a name brings up their address and whether they voted in the 2016 and 2014 elections.

With both the Facebook ads, and the mailers, it can be difficult to determine who political groups are trying to reach: people they want to vote, people they don’t want to vote, or some combination.

This story was reported with the help of the Electionland project, a collaboration of newsrooms around the country tracking voting problems on Election Day. You can help us by signing up now: Text VOTE to 81380. You can also WhatsApp at us at +1 850 909-8683 or reach us through Facebook Messenger here: http://m.me/electionland