2013-11-20 / Front Page

Voter-shaming tactics spark angry backlash

‘Report cards’ alert the neighbors
By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER

As a government teacher at Cosby High School, Renee Serrao regularly emphasizes to her students the need to fulfill their civic duty and vote in every election once they’re eligible.

So it came as quite a shock when her husband, Steve, received a failing grade on his voter history report card from a group known as the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

The official-looking document arrived in the Serraos’ mailbox in June. It informed Steve Serrao that, according to public records, he was one of the few individuals in his Chesterfield County neighborhood who hadn’t yet registered to vote.

The document also noted that the Americans for Prosperity Foundation planned to contact the Serraos’ neighbors to let them know that he wasn’t a registered voter.

From Renee Serrao’s perspective, there were major problems with this purported “report card” – not the least of which was its factual inaccuracy. Her husband is not only a registered voter, she said, but one who actively participates in all local, state and national elections.

Making matters worse, three of the five neighbors listed on the document are parents of either current or former government students at Cosby.

“I was pretty mad,” Renee Serrao acknowledged during an interview last week. “I tell kids every day how important it is to vote. The last thing I wanted was their parents getting a letter saying my husband isn’t even a registered voter. It would’ve made me look like a fraud.”

Serrao knew there was most likely nothing she or her husband could do to prevent the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit, from disseminating false information about her husband’s voting history.

The foundation is closely affiliated with Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization founded by billionaire industrialist David Koch.

But just in case, she decided to call Larry Haake, the county’s general registrar, to let him know what was happening.

As it turned out, Haake already had heard from several frustrated Chesterfield residents who had received similar notices in the mail.

“It’s outrageous what they do,” Haake said of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. “Most of their information is wrong. They know it’s wrong and they don’t care.”

Haake recalled a conversation he had with Ben Knotts, director of the Central Virginia regional office of Americans for Prosperity, at an event this past summer.

According to Haake, Knotts acknowledged that his organization was trying to “rile people up” and get as many unregistered voters as possible to the polls for the 2013 elections.

“It’s not illegal, but I think it’s very inappropriate,“ said Haake, who contacted the Chesterfield commonwealth attorney’s office and was informed that the mailings didn’t violate any laws.

Knotts didn’t respond to an interview request from the Observer for this story. Dave Schwartz, director of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s Virginia chapter, said in a statement that the group’s goal is to get “as many Virginians to vote as possible. Sometimes our methods are non-traditional, but we believe Virginia, and ultimately America, is best served when there is a high voter participation rate.”

Andrea Walker, an information center analyst with the State Board of Elections, confirmed via email last week that the board has received voter complaints about similar mailings from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Voter Participation Center.

“The State Board of Elections did not sell voter history data to either of these organizations. However, [the board] is legally compelled to release such information to third-parties as the result of litigation,” she wrote.

Virginia law used to strictly limit access to citizens’ personal voting information. Anyone requesting such data – names, addresses and records of participation in past elections – had to sign an oath stating that they were qualified to receive it.

That changed in February 2011. Richmond Circuit Court Judge Melvin Hughes ruled in favor of the Know Campaign, a nonprofit that had sued the State Board of Elections, and declared that the law violated the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Hughes’ ruling opened the door to anyone willing to pay for the voting information, and essentially created a new industry. Commercial vendors now obtain the data from the State Board of Elections and sell it to activist groups such as the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

Renee Serrao claimed that the distribution of such information is part of the foundation’s coordinated effort to “shame” nonvoters into participating in the electoral process. Research by political scientists has indicated that such efforts have been successful previously, she said.

“I’m all about increasing voter turnout, but not through voter shaming and putting out false information,” she added. “If they can’t be accurate, they shouldn’t do this.”

The mailing certainly didn’t have the desired effect on one Chesterfield resident. The notice from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation made Carla Wootten so mad, she went online and shared her frustration with her Facebook friends – many of whom agreed that the document was an egregious invasion of privacy.

“I wouldn’t have had a problem if they had just sent a letter reminding me to vote,” she said. “But they put this stuff on there about my neighbors to scare or embarrass me. That’s not right.”

Wootten, who said that her neighbors were “livid” that their names and addresses had been listed on the notice she received, plans to inform the Americans for Prosperity Foundation in writing that she doesn’t want her name associated with any future “get out the vote” efforts.

“It might not do any good,” she acknowledged. “I just want to let them know that I’m upset about it.”

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