Contacting Voters

PIRGIM–that’s Public Interest Research Group in Michigan–has been conducting a voter registration drive for the past few weeks and drawing some unwanted publicity because they’ve submitted fairly large numbers of bad registrations to Michigan’s county clerks.  Here’s their statement of intention:

PIRGIM’s Community Voters Project is working to break this cycle of mutual disinterest [between politicians and the poor] by facilitating increased voter registration and turnout.  In early June, PIRGIM’s Community Voters Project opened a full-scale canvass office in Lansing.  The trained, dedicated canvassers in this office hit the streets of Lansing every day, finding, registering, and educating thousands of new voters.  [emphasis added]

An excellent intention, though obviously something went wrong.  A few notes….

Voter turnout efforts generally have three prongs:

  1. Voter registration campaign. 
    • Although there are partisan activities in this arena, funding availability and reporting requirements generally push these efforts to organizations which are nominally non-partisan.
      • Since both major parties work with “non-partisan” allies, finger-pointing about it is not really common.
      • Abolishing this practice might be desirable.
    • There are also genuinely non-partisan activities in this arena.  Most people have no difficulty telling the two varieties apart.
  2. Likely-supporter identification efforts.
    • This is where the partisan voter-contact money and effort mainly goes, and was where I worked when I was politicking.  Voter contact activities tend to occur concurrently with voter registration efforts but are a separate activity with different leadership (not so true of the worker bees, though).
    • This effort is mainly about identifying the likelihood that a voter household will support a candidate or a ticket.  In general, this is accomplished by interviewing household members by going door-to-door or by telephoning the home.  There may or may not be an explicit campaign effort attached to the voter contact.
    • Voter ID is a separate organization from the main campaign effort, but generally works closely with candidate organizations.
  3. Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) activities on election day.
    • Everybody gives lip service to high voter turnout.
    • Everyone works to get their own voters to the polls.  That’s why we’ve spent months identifying our supporters, and where those efforts pay off.
      • Attempting to discourage the other side’s voters is not unheard of, and takes many forms.  While some of these discouragements are more honorable than others, all corrode the process.
    • Again, there are truly non-partisan groups working in this arena.  Those are upstanding folks, and virtually everyone admires them.

In this schema, PIRGIM counts as a nominally non-partisan group doing voter registration–though they style themselves as genuinely non-partisan.  The clerks who’ve received the bad registrations are reporting a failure of training and supervision, not one of intention.  The PIRGIM canvassers were apparently paid by the signature, a payment scheme which invites fraud.  The canvassers who created the problem were likely convinced that the faked registrations were harmless, and may have believed they were actually doing something good.  Presumably they didn’t expect they’d be caught.  My experience is that enthusiasts can be idiots about this sort of thing–and trust me, folks who run these programs try to hire enthusiasts.

It’s still fraud, though, albeit small-scale and individual rather than large-scale and organizational.  The effect  is about the same; the sponsor’s credibility takes a hit, as does the election process.  Nothing undermines the credibility of an election like the appearance of dishonesty.

If I’d been running the operation, those documents would have been checked before they got passed to the county clerks.  Since the clerks are consistently reporting that the fraudulent registrations are obvious forgeries, that check shouldn’t have required great effort.  Supervision, guys.  Due diligence.  Simple caution.


  • Historically PIRGIM’s a Naderite organization, and not particularly a Democratic Party ally  This sort of dissonance makes life interesting.
  • Been there.  I helped run a county-wide voter contact campaign for the Kalamazoo Democrats in 1972.  Part of the effort was coordinated by a student group whose only real interest was the presidential contest.  A quick glance at the voter survey sheets returned from the campus made it clear that only the McGovern ratings could be trusted.  Since we caught the fraud before passing the forms to other organizations, the faked forms mainly made my sister angry.  Very angry.
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