David Mas Masumoto

Vote – or someone may tell on you

Special to The Bee

I checked the voting record of my friend who lives in Oklahoma. I could urge her to vote and lobby for my cause by inducing her into participation. Fortunately, according to Badvoter.org, an online site that exposes voting frequency of Oklahomans, my friend is a “great voter!” I did not need to shame her.

A 2006 study by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and Christopher Larimer concludes that by using some heavy-handed tactics, we could shame people into voting. In their study, voters were randomly assigned to receive no mail; a mailer that encouraged them to vote; and a mailer that encouraged them to vote and show their participation in previous elections.

The point was to shame them into voting. And it worked. Disclosing past voting behavior had strong effects on turnout. The research did not examine how people voted, merely whether they voted.

Similar results were shown by door-to-door canvassing, but social pressure and mailings were just as compelling and much less costly.

During past elections, different groups have employed various methods, all based on a similar premise: Shame works. Some have gone a step further by threatening to monitor whether people vote and threatening to disclose your non-voting record publicly.

What if your neighbors knew whether you voted?

In the original Gerber study, encouraging individuals to vote by mailings raised turnout by 4 percent. But by going negative and informing people that they did not vote in prior elections, participation rose by 6.3 percent. Pride in being a good voter was surpassed by feelings of shame.

Elections in other states bear watching. In 2014, in Alaska and Colorado, mailers were sent out that compared voting records to your neighbor’s voting history. A mailer threatened to mail an updated report card after the election that would tell your friends, neighbors and work colleagues if you voted or not.

In Oregon in November 2014, an app was introduced called “didtheyvote.org,” which allowed anyone to determine whether people voted. Then you could link with Facebook and send the laggard a message, while publicly proclaiming your friend had yet to cast a ballot.

The premise is that individuals would be more responsive if their best friends say they should vote. Some claim this campaign was connected with motivating pot legalization supporters to turn out, which they did.

Some people have pushed back against these tactics, and some campaigns are fearful of threatening people by publicizing voting records. They worry about creating resentment with their dirty tricks mailers.

Voters may not see such tactics as an inducement to participate, but rather a tool to coerce and manipulate. Shame can work on many levels.

In a campaign in New York in 2014, some Democratic Party leaders worried that the use of a voter report card could be interpreted as a threat. Citizens may believe their right to vote is a private matter.

The larger question revolves around who benefits from greater participation. If we take the view that democracy works best when participation is the greatest, then social pressure to get apathetic individuals off their couch is a good idea. Yet individuals under heavy pressure may react in the opposite way, rejecting the intended result.

Or is this simply a question of social behavior? We live in an increasingly transparent world. People are more likely to do the right thing when they know others are watching. So vote on Nov. 8. Or someone will tell on you.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including“Epitaph for a Peach.” masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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