Oklahomans have been receiving mailers that suggest, in vaguely threatening language, that their voting records will soon be publicized. The mailers, which have been shared by recipients on social media, are funded by Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, according to a disclosure line on the mailer.
The mailers read, “According to our records, you are registered to vote in the upcoming election. Your friends and neighbors will be voting too. We’ll be checking the records after the election and we hope to find your name on the voter list.”
The mailer continues, “Remember: who you vote for is private, but whether or not you vote is public.”
Lisa Henry is archivist and instructor at the Julian P. Kanter Collection at the University of Oklahoma, which houses numerous forms of political communication from the beginning of the 20th century to present day.
Henry recalls similar mailers receiving media coverage in the past, and her reaction to those mailers echoed that of many recipients.
“I remember thinking, this feels like an invasion of privacy,” Henry said via e-mail.
The Oklahoma mailer is similar to several sent to voters in other states in recent years. The practice has generated controversy and even voter backlash at times.
In 2014, a mailer sent by the Connecticut Democratic Party had a similar message.
“Who you vote for is private but whether or not you vote is public record,” the mailer stated. “We’re sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to publicize who does and does not vote... We will be reviewing these records after the election to determine whether or not you have joined your neighbors in voting.”
The Hartford Courant reported that similar mailers had been sent that year by “Democrats in North Carolina and New York and a Super PAC funded by a conservative donor in Alaska, among other places.”
In 2019, the Colorado Sun reported that Coloradans for Prosperity, a group working to pass a ballot measure eliminating caps on state-spending growth, attempted a similar “social pressure” campaign. The group sent mailers to voters that said, “Public records indicate that you voted less often than your neighbors in recent elections. Raise your grade by voting in the 2019 general election in November.”
Coloradans for Prosperity’s mailer included a line warning “it is public record whether or not you choose to vote.”
The mailer’s recipients included individuals who had never failed to vote in an election, according to the Sun. Despite Coloradans for Prosperity’s efforts, voters rejected the ballot measure.
The presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also used similar mailers in GOP state primaries in 2016.
Researchers have found such “shaming” mailers can increase voter turnout.
A study published in 2008 in the American Political Science Review, “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-scale Field Experiment,” examined the impact of campaign mailers that informed voters, “WHO VOTES IS PUBLIC INFORMATION” or conveyed similar messages.
“Although we are not advocates of shaming tactics or policies, their cost-effectiveness makes them an inevitable development in political campaign craft, and social scientists have much to learn by studying the consequences of making public acts more public,” the study’s authors wrote.
In 2006, researchers studied the “impact of social pressure on the behavior of registered voters” in Michigan by randomly assigning 80,003 households to receive one of four mailings 11 days before the primary election.
One of the four mailings listed the voting record of each registered voter in the household and another mailer listed the voting records of the recipient’s neighbors.
“The last two mailings also indicated that voters would be informed of who voted after the election,” the study noted.
The study concluded, “Social pressure substantially increased voter turnout and the mailing that listed neighbors’ voting records had the largest effect.”
Researchers found that mailing a household’s own voting record resulted in a 4.9 percentage point increase and listing neighbors’ voting records resulted in an 8.1 percentage point increase in turnout.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states allow public access to voter registration lists that show when and how often someone votes in elections. But states can and do restrict the release of a voter’s home address, which is the information used by campaigns for targeted communications such as the “shaming” mailers.
Many states have “address confidentiality programs,” which are typically used to keep private the home address of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. Some states also have address-confidentiality laws in place for specific individuals. For example, in Arizona, the addresses of law enforcement officers are protected from public release. In California, address protections are in place for both law-enforcement officers and individuals who work at abortion clinics.
According to the NCSL, Oklahoma law prevents the release of the address of those in an address confidentiality program, judges, district attorneys, assistant district attorneys, members of the military, law enforcement personnel, correctional officers, persons protected by victim’s protection orders, and the spouses and dependents of individuals covered by those exemptions.
Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, a 501(c)(4) group, is best known for spending millions in 2016 in support of State Question 779, which would have increased the state sales tax to fund a variety of education-related programs and salaries. Voters soundly rejected SQ 779.
In 2018, Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future filed a lawsuit to challenge a recall petition effort associated with former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. Coburn and other citizens were seeking a vote of state citizens on hundreds of millions in tax increases approved that year by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature. Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future was successful in its legal efforts to prevent the public vote on the tax increases.
In past years, Amber England has been a spokesperson for Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future. Today, England is campaign manager for Yes on 802, a campaign that supports a June 30 ballot measure that would make taxpayer-funded coverage a constitutional right for certain able-bodied adults through expansion of Oklahoma’s Medicaid program.
Officials with Yes on 802 did not respond when asked via email if England remains affiliated with Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future.