Voters cast ballots at Main Street Station in Richmond in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia political operatives can continue to use voters’ personal information to try to shame them into casting a ballot, despite a lawmaker’s effort to ban a practice he described as invasive and inappropriate.
The Democratic Party of Virginia angered some of its own voters last year with mailers, styled as “voter report cards,” that included the recipient’s name and compared their voting history with their neighbors, implying people who don’t regularly participate in elections could be publicly outed as civically negligent.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, told the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee Tuesday he was “a little bit shocked” to see a mailer comparing his daughter’s voting history to others in his neighborhood.
“You cannot take voter file information and put people on blast,” Petersen said. “I think that’s just common sense.”
But the committee didn’t see Petersen’s proposal as a common-sense fix, rejecting it in a 6-9 vote.
Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said the proposed ban raised free speech issues, suggesting the state can’t put limits on how people choose to use information that, under state law, is public.
“How do you then say you can use this for one type of speech and not another type of speech?” McDougle asked.
So-called “social pressure” mailings are a common electioneering tactic used by both parties. But their attention-grabbing effectiveness can occasionally backfire, drawing pushback from voters who feel the name-and-shame tactics go too far.
Candidates and political parties can purchase a voter file from the Virginia Department of Elections that shows whether a person participated in primary and general elections in the last four years. Campaigns can use that information, which does not reveal how a person voted, to target voters based on which party primaries they participate in and how active they are.
Petersen noted the law already limits what recipients can do with those lists, restricting their use for “campaign and political purposes” only and can’t be distributed to anyone else or sold for commercial purposes.
“In terms of a First Amendment issue, I’ve got to be honest I’ve never thought about someone’s personal voting history being something that’s of First Amendment value,” Petersen said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of public concern.”
Other senators raised concerns about unintended consequences. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, wondered if the bill might impede a candidate’s ability to share targeted voter information with a third-party mail vendor for more routine political messaging.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said he too had heard complaints about the mailers.
“I’ve had people call me up personally saying ‘Why are these people telling me I don’t have a good voting record?’ It’s none of their business,’” Ebbin said. “I don’t think we need to invade people’s privacy that way.”
Despite the failure of the proposed ban, a DPVA spokesman said the party will be more thoughtful about mailings going forward.
“We understand the intent and rationale behind Senator Petersen’s bill and appreciate him for working with us and our staff,” said DPVA communications director Jayce Genco. “While the Democratic Party of Virginia is committed to using every tool in our arsenal to win elections, including publicly available information, we do intend to be more intentional when utilizing mail pieces so it has the intended impact.”
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