Liberal groups bury Michigan with mail shaming people to vote. Many hate it.

The Center for Voter Information has been flooding Michigan voters with “social pressure” letters urging them to vote by reminding that their participation records are publicly available. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

LANSING — The postcard looked friendly enough, with cartoon images of a Model T, cherries and pine trees inside an outline of the Mitten state and an encouraging message urging Michigan to “vote!”

But Leslie Figueroa was startled when she read the back.

“Who you vote for is a secret, but whether you vote is public information,” the postcard author told her. “After the election on Tues. Nov. 3, local organizations may follow up with you on your voting record.”

“I thought it was a threat,” said Figueroa. 

The postcard included a paid-by disclaimer from the Indivisible Chicago Alliance, a liberal group that this fall organized a volunteer mail campaign to try to boost voter turnout in Michigan and Wisconsin. 

But Figueroa, an Ann Arbor Democrat, said she initially feared it might be disinformation designed to discourage her from voting instead. 

“I always vote, so they were threatening the wrong person, and I wasn’t even sure what they were trying to accomplish,” she said. “In my mind it was almost like reverse psychology.”

The postcard is an example of what experts call “social pressure” mail that can shock recipients but is considered effective and is being widely employed this year by third-party organizations seeking to boost voter turnout in battleground states like Michigan. 

“Social pressure mailings can be short-handed as peer pressure in an envelope,” said Tom Lopach, CEO of a group called the Center for Voter Information, which has bombarded Michiganders with similar letters. 

“They’ve been proven to be the most impactful at getting voters to the polls to vote.”

The message Figueroa received appeared to be a variation on the group’s national campaign to mail 2 million postcards to Michigan voters this cycle. A liberal activist from Oregon, for instance, told Bridge Michigan he and his family sent identical postcards to 100 Michigan voters.

Marj Halperin of Indivisible Chicago emailed Bridge Michigan a statement Monday evening after this story published, saying the postcards “encourage people to vote” using “language that has been tested and proven to do so.”

“This is a nonpartisan message that does not  ask or encourage anyone to vote for specific candidates,” she said. “The follow up referenced in the message is commonplace and refers only to follow up regarding the decision to vote, not to specific votes cast. Organizations use it to gain an understanding of why some people voted and others did not.”
The Center for Voter Information, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has inundated Michiganders with official-looking mailings that compare their voting frequency to that of their neighbors, assign recipients a “voting score” and remind them that “how you vote is private, but how you vote is a matter of public record.”

The letters are “creepy,” said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. “It’s trying to shame voters into exercising their right.”

(Photo by Jonathan Oosting)

‘High-volume’ mail

Byrum, a Democrat, supports the broader effort to register new voters and increase turnout. 

But she and other clerks say mass mailing by the Center for Voter Information are confusing voters and the letters can be mistaken as official government documents, which they are not. 

Voters are phoning clerks to complain about the release of their voter participation records, which is public data available through the state, she said. 

But mailing lists and records are often outdated.

“We get calls with widows crying because we mailed their deceased husband information about their voter report,” Byrum said. “Well, it wasn’t us.”

In fine print, the letters allow recipients to opt out of future mailings by emailing a tracking number to the Center for Voter Information. That’s a step Lori Lynch of Lake Orion took after receiving four letters in a single day, she told Bridge. 

“I didn’t want more garbage,” Lynch said, noting she’d already voted by absentee ballot when the mail arrived. 

“Having canvassed for candidates before, I know that [voter participation] data is publicly available, so I wasn’t completely shocked to see it.”

The Center for Voter Information, along with a sister nonprofit called the Voter Participation Center, claim to be nonpartisan but have deep Democratic ties. 

Lopach recently served as chief of staff to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and CVI founder Page Gardner worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Jill Alper, a Democratic strategist from Michigan, sits on the board of the Voter Participation Center, according to its website. 

Both groups “run high-volume, direct mail and digital outreach to register voters, to help voters sign up for mail and to turn out voters,” Lopach told Bridge.

In addition to the social pressure mail, the Center for Voter Information claims to have sent registration applications to more than 3.4 million Michiganders this cycle and to helped more than 300,000 apply for absentee ballots.

The Voter Participation Center targets voters in what Lopach called the “rising American electorate”: People of color, unmarried women and younger people who tend to vote less frequently than other demographics. 

The Center for Voter Information, meanwhile, “primarily targets voters that don’t fit within those populations but share the values of wanting to see those populations reflected more clearly in the electorate,” he said. 

Although the demographic groups they target tend to support Democrats, Lopach said the organizations are nonpartisan and “do not use party affiliation to find people to mail,” which could jeopardize their nonprofit status. 

They are not required to disclose donors and operate their massive mailing campaigns using “private contributions from individuals and families,” he said. 

Duplicate efforts 

Byrum has been urging the Center for Voter Information to change its approach – and update its voter lists – for more than a year. It started when her father, who she said has been registered to vote at the same address for more than 40 years, got a letter from CVI saying he may not be registered to vote. 

In April, an elderly Lansing man emailed her office to say the Center for Voter Information sent mail to his late wife, who died in 1989. In June, Alaiedon Township Deputy Clerk Virgnia Hoffman emailed the Ingham County clerk on behalf of another widower who received mail for his deceased wife. 

“I'm hoping we don't get any more since some spouses have not adjusted well to losing their significant other, and mail for them is very upsetting especially when they shouldn't be receiving this,” Hoffman wrote. 

The Center for Voter Information uses the state’s voter file to identify registered voters, Lopach said, but it’s not clear how often it purchases that list to ensure it is up to date. The group also uses commercial data lists to try and find the mailing addresses of unregistered voters, which can be less accurate. 

In emails to Byrum’s office last year, an attorney with the Center for Voter Information said the group was attempting to work with its vendor, Catalist, to try and cross-check its contact files with death data from the Michigan Office of Vital Records, which are also public record. 

“There’s always third parties that are mailing things, and they don’t have all the correct information,” said Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, who told Bridge that one local voter emailed her after receiving an absentee ballot request from the Center for Voter Information that was mailed to someone who had moved out of their house 20 years ago. 

She questioned why the group sent absentee ballot applications to voters here this fall after Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson already took the rare step of doing so herself to encourage remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The bigger issue out there for local clerks is people applying for an absentee ballot multiple times” because they’ve been bombarded by mailers, Brown said.“Our clerks are not sending them send or third ballots, but it is creating more work.”

As for the social pressure mailings, Brown said she’s also fielded emails and calls from voters “upset” by the messaging.

“There are some voters who believe that these organizations know how they voted or are giving bad information, she said.  “Voting is very personal. I feel bad for the people who are upset by it and think that it’s real or that it gives them concern. We have enough to be worried about in this world.”

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Mon, 10/26/2020 - 4:44pm

I got a notice like that and loved it. It's just like all the republican pro life mail I get because I'm Catholic. I'm so happy Democrats are finally taking elections seriously. BTW what's going on with Trump? His face is one color and his hands are another. Underneath the makeup, he looks like the walking dead. Is it because of covid or just old age?

Tue, 10/27/2020 - 11:53am

Really sad that we have the Republicans complaining about 'unlimited' voting. Tells you have far we have sunk with this party who wants to turn our democracy into a dictatorship.

Tue, 10/27/2020 - 9:00am

I have receive multiple notifications and I find them annoying for someone who votes.
BTW its also a right NOT to vote and not to be pressured to vote. Also some shouldn't vote if they can't understand who or what they are voting for.

Tue, 10/27/2020 - 1:02pm

Guess what, if you support this new Supreme Court majority of "originalists", there is no right to vote in the Constitution. We have the right to vote only by court decree, not the Constitution or the Legislature. Michigan, vote like your life depends on it!

Tue, 10/27/2020 - 12:20pm

A friend of mine coined a term for this phenomenon. It's "vote scolding". While I do sincerely hope that more people take their responsibility as a citizen seriously enough to vote, the huge flurry of glossy postcards with scary implications that whatever happens after the election will be *your* fault if you don't vote the way the senders want you to is off-putting. It's almost as bad as the constant political ads which have me avoiding broadcast media ass much as possible.

GOP Hypocrites
Tue, 10/27/2020 - 1:08pm

Kind of like "cancel culture" and "pc"? Republicans whine a lot. Up until this election, I was always bombarded by Republican mailers telling me to vote, especially by evangelical groups often implying I didn't love God and would go to hell if I didn't vote for Republicans. Guess you could call that "vote guilting". Better?

Tue, 10/27/2020 - 2:22pm

Federal law says that "no person …shall intimidate, threaten, coerce …any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of [that] person to vote or to vote as he may choose."
Choosing not to vote is your choice!
As I read the law, these postcards are voter intimidation and should be investigated.

Jeff Taylor
Tue, 10/27/2020 - 9:12pm

Voter intimidation pure and simple. And who wants a uninformed voter casting a ballot anyway? Oh I's those of you who see originalist justices as a threat to our democratic republic. Your hypocrisy is astounding. Are you truly that misinformed or does your pursuit of power just allow you to misinform and deceive without hesitation?

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 7:41am

I agree completely: I get DOZENS of mailings a year about needing new windows (mine are two years old). WHY DO I HAVE TO BUY NEW WINDOWS??? I FEEL VERY THREATENED!!! I'm gonna get me a GUN. There ought to be a law about this. Someone needs to grow up.

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 11:04pm

I am personally outraged that the Center for Voter Information is allowed to keep their nonprofit status, by claiming to be a nonpartisan organization. I think of myself as a responsible Independent Voter, selecting candidates and voting on issues based on their merits. Yesterday, I received a letter reciting my voting participation for the last 4 major elections, along with two of my neighbors, on my street. Informing me that “they” (Center for Voter Information) will be reviewing the records to determine if I had “joined my neighbors in voting”. Then stating that they could follow up my vote on Election Day by contacting me to discuss questions they might have. Quite frankly, this is a serious “big brother” tactic to bully voters into complying with the Center for Voters Information’s wishes. Today I received a new letter from this company, which is NOT an official government organization, proclaiming to have the answers to three of voters most important questions. How legitimate, or even ethical, is it to cite joebiden .com as the official supporting source to an answer that Joe Biden gives to two out of three questions??! How up to date, and in what context, were the answers provided by Donald Trump? The result of the many, many mailings I received from the Center for Voter Information, ending with these last two letters is that I feel more confident in my decision to vote for Mr. Trump. His campaign and/or supporters have never tried to shame me, or treated me as if I were too incompetent to objectively look at the information they’ve sent me, and see it for what it so obviously is, desperate partisan tactics to try to steer my vote. As a final note, I sincerely hope that this company is exposed and that my taxes are not used to further their self serving agenda.

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 2:17pm

"[...] I feel more confident in my decision to vote for Mr. Trump. His campaign and/or supporters have never tried to shame me, or treated me as if I were too incompetent to objectively look at the information [...]"

This is some amazing cognitive dissonance. President Trump literally withheld information about the severity of the pandemic back in February because he said he "didn't want to cause a panic." Or in other words, he thought the American people were too incompetent to handle accurate information. He has called any news story critical of him or his administration "fake news." He only cites polls that paint him in a positive light. He has claimed to know more than the actual experts on multiple occasions. You and the rest of his followers just hang on every word as if it was delivered by God and refuse to question his gospels. And why is that? Because any Republican who dares to go against Trump is labeled a RINO or a "secret democrat." Mitt Romney was literally the GOP presidential candidate in 2012 but the way Trump talks about him, you'd think he was Obama's campaign manager. Justin Amash was a founding member of the influential GOP House Freedom Caucus and a rising GOP star who was basically forced out of the GOP because he dared to question the president's flagrant disregard for the constitution.

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 6:42pm

MW, thank you so much for giving your uninformed opinion regarding my statements. First, as I clearly stated, I am an Independent Voter, I do NOT blindly hang onto Mr. Trumps every word. I do have a mind of my own, and I have in fact had many questions over the last five years. As you should recall, it is a fact, Mr. Trump made a very quick decision to put the safety of our country first, by limiting access to those traveling from a foreign country. The immediate reaction was very loud objections by the Democratic party, calling Mr. Trump all sort of names (a disrespectful behavior that the Democrats started shamefully taking part of, that NO other president in our history has been subjected to), blasting him for taking “hasty” actions that “were not fair”, etc., etc., etc. I honestly wonder how these very same Democrats can look the public in the eye now, and insistently proclaim that the president is responsible for the Covid-19 Virus spreading in our country because he failed to take action faster than he did! Aren’t you embarrassed by the hypocrisy of that entire issue? Mr. Trump may not be someone I would choose to socialize with on my own time, or invite into my home for dinner. Quite frankly there are several important and respected surgeons, and leaders in some other fields, that I feel the same way about. That does NOT diminish their skills or value that they contribute towards the strength and health of our country. Who is being blinded by party affiliation? Finally I would remind you that my previous statements were made in response to the article describing the questionable behavior of the Center for Voter Information. An article that you failed to mention, entirely. Sadly jumping on another opportunity to bad mouth Republicans, Independents, basically anyone with a brain, that doesn’t choose to share all of your views without question.