Shaming Non-Voters Has No Place In a Free Society

People have the right to troop to the polls, or not, as they please.


"The privacy of the ballot booth is a core American value," declared James Valvo, director of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, two years ago. "Allowing individuals to make their own decisions about their government … free from coercion from either side, is paramount."

Valvo was criticizing "card-check" legislation to let unions organize through other than secret ballots'"and he wasn't alone. Ballot secrecy, declared AFP Virginia's Ben Marchi, was "the bedrock of our democracy." AFP waged a loud and sustained campaign on behalf of the secret ballot in union fights.

Too bad AFP doesn't practice what it preaches. If it did, then it would not have sent out "voter audits" tattling on people who, AFP believes, do not vote with sufficient regularity.

As the Chesterfield Observer reported last week, county resident Steve Serrao got one such report card in June. It listed him as a non-voter. His wife, Renee, who teaches government, strenuously disputes that. "We're contacting you and your neighbors today to let folks know who does and who doesn't vote," the report card says. "As you can see below, your neighbors who have voted are concerned about the community's well-being. Are you?"

Nancy Meacham of Roanoke got a similarly ominous audit from the group in November'"as did others around the state. Many of them felt, quite rightly, that the mailings amounted to rank voter intimidation.

AFP wasn't the only group this year to employ such tactics. So did the Democratic Party of Virginia. "The chart below shows your household's public voting record in past elections as well as an empty space which we will fill to indicate if you vote in this year's election on Tuesday, November 5th," reads that party's mau-mauing missive. "We intend to mail you an updated chart after the election that will show whether or not you voted. We will leave the space blank if you do not vote."

According to state officials, the left-wing Voter Participation Center likewise sent out similar letters to citizens it deemed "BELOW AVERAGE." "After the election," the VPC wrote, "we will re-evaluate your voting record and hope to share it with your neighbors to see if there is improvement."

The VPC gained notoriety last summer when, as The Times-Dispatch reported, it sent 200,000 voter registration forms, many to "already registered voters, as well as to children, non-citizens, the deceased and family pets."

This was not fraud itself, but it was a long way from seemly. In 2008, a felon used a form sent by the VPC to vote illegally, for which she received a (suspended) 10-year sentence. Is AFP proud to emulate the tactics of the VPC? For that matter, is the liberal group proud to emulate the tactics of the conservative one?

None of the senders should be proud of invading other people's privacy and harassing them to do something they are under no obligation to do: The right to vote also entails the right not to vote.

No one should have to justify exercising a right; rights, by definition, justify themselves. Nevertheless, for many people, not voting is an entirely rational choice: The cost of learning about the candidates and the issues often outweighs the benefit to be had from casting a ballot whose odds of making a significant difference in the outcome are infinitesimal.

Many people make a much bigger difference through other means'"mentoring kids, volunteering, charity and civic groups. Government is far from the only avenue for doing good.

Yet the threatening tenor of the mailings suggests there is something shameful about exercising such a right. Public shaming of this sort is nothing new; it has been used often throughout history '" usually by exceedingly undemocratic and illiberal regimes, such as ancient Rome, Puritan America, contemporary Iran and 20th century communism.

It is the communist culture'"citizens informing upon citizens, show trials for dissidents and backsliders'"that echoes most loudly in the letters: "Comrade Jones has squandered the opportunity he has been provided to strive for the betterment of the People. The People have a right to expect that Comrade Jones will direct his every effort to the class struggle. By setting his own ego and contentment above the interests of the proletariat, Comrade Jones has demonstrated behavior unworthy of a Bolshevik. He has betrayed his fellow citizens, who have committed themselves completely to the collective good.. . ."

Many people'"harried single mothers, fathers working two jobs, adult children caring for sick parents '" simply have more pressing things to do on Election Day than vote. AFP and Co. might think otherwise. If so, too bad: It's not their call to make'"and none of their business in the first place.