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Frank Gray

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Dodgy way to help get out the vote

A mailer being sent to some Fort Wayne residents, encouraging them to vote and detailing whether they and their neighbors voted in 2008 and 2010 is, well, honking off a lot of the recipients.

The mailer, which is labeled a vote history audit, was sent by an organization called Americans for Limited Government, which calls itself nonpartisan, though its website seems to take conservative or even libertarian positions on political issues.

The letter encourages the recipients to vote and says it will update its records and send out a new letter after next week’s election indicating whether the recipients and their neighbors had voted.

How many people have gotten them in Fort Wayne is not known, but similar letters have been sent to people all over the country.

Beth Dlug, director of elections at the Allen County Board of Elections, says she has received about 10 calls from people who she described as fairly upset that the organization is sharing their voting records with their neighbors. Their reactions, Dlug said, are that whether they voted is none of their neighbors’ business.

In news stories in other states, some people complained that the letters were an invasion of privacy, and a story in the Indianapolis Star quoted Secretary of State Connie Lawson as saying her office “does not treat lightly its role to strictly limit access to voting records.”

The fact is, though, that in Indiana, at least, all kinds of information on voters and their voting habits is readily available.

“Voting history is a matter of public record,” Dlug said, and when she has told callers that, they have calmed down.

Savvy politicians can get reports detailing who has and who hasn’t voted, whether a voter voted in the Republican or Democratic primary, and so on. The information, available at the county level, can be used to create walking lists so people campaigning for a specific candidate know which doors to knock on and which to ignore.

The actual ballot, though, is secret, so no one knows who any particular individual voted for – unless they tell you.

I called Americans for Limited Government, and they responded with an email saying their only goal is to increase participation in the electoral process. The organization said that while some find it worrisome that campaigns or organizations can access voting histories, such information is a fundamental tool that has been used since Abraham Lincoln, they said.

The organization said it has sent out 2.75 million mailers in 19 states, but that it could not say exactly how many were sent out in this area.

The idea isn’t new. According to Abstract Politics, a political science website, some university researchers did pretty much the same thing a few years ago.

Four different groups each got a different mailer: one reminding people to vote; one reminding them to vote that also said they were watching turnout; one reminding them to vote then adding that voter behavior is public record along with their voting record; and the fourth option asking what if their neighbors knew whether they voted along with their and their neighbors’ turnout history, sort of shaming people into voting.

All the letters increased voter turnout, but the one with neighbors’ voting records worked the best by far.

Though some people call the strategy an invasion of privacy, I have a hard time getting worked up about it. People put campaign signs in their yards, they put bumper stickers on their cars and they frequently make no secret of their political leanings. The fact that my neighbor knows that I did or didn’t vote doesn’t bother me.

It’s just politics.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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