Virginia’s Proposed Incumbency Protection Program

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Written by Aldon Hynes, cross posted at his request.

In 2006, political scientists studied a group of 180,000 voters in Michigan. Using a control group and four study groups, they researched what efforts would be most effective raising voter turnout. They found that people who were told that it was their civic duty to vote were six percent more likely to vote. On the other hand, voters who were sent letters describing how often their neighbors had voted in previous elections where twenty seven percent more likely to vote. In a Washington Post article, Your Neighbors Could Find Out, So You'd Better Vote, researchers talked about the implications of this research.
Gerber, who also works at Yale, said campaigns would have to use the technique with caution, because the last thing a candidate wants to do is annoy people who are going to vote for him or her. But Green said nonpartisan groups, even public authorities, might consider using the technique to boost turnout, especially in municipal elections that often bring out just 15 percent of eligible voters.
One non-profit decided to act on this. In October 2009, the Know Campaign planned to send out a letter to voters in Virginia informing them of how often their neighbors had voted in the previous elections. The idea of being shamed into voting did not sit well with people from Virginia and the Know Campaign was investigated by the Virginia State Board of Elections. An article in the Washington Post, Va. investigates legality of access to voter list reports:
Under Virginia law, the Board of Elections can furnish lists of voters only to the courts, the Department of Motor Vehicles, bona fide political candidates, political parties, political action committees and nonprofit groups that promote voter education or registration. The law further restricts access to voting histories, prohibiting the Board of Elections from giving the histories to anyone except candidates, elected officials or political party chairmen. Those who do obtain the lists are also required to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, promising not to disseminate the information to those not authorized to have it.
According to an article in PilotOnline
The State Board of Elections has already been sued once by the Know Campaign … That suit was settled, but the group has promised to sue again if the law is not changed to allow wider access to the lists…Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's office has advised lawmakers that the current law won't stand up in court because it gives candidates and parties privileged treatment over others seeking access to a voter history list.
Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake stated, "We had two options. We can make it available to everybody or we can make it available to no one." The idea of not making voter history available to candidates was a concern to some Delegates. They noted that it is already very expensive to run for office and losing the access to voter history would make it even more expensive.

Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, however, argued "Voting is a private function of a private citizen. If it costs too much money to run, don't run."

This sounds like the ultimate in incumbency protection. First off, carrying out one’s civic duty should not be considered a private function. It is a public responsibility. Yes, how people vote needs to be protected and kept private, but not whether or not they voted. We need to encourage citizens to get out and vote. In addition, we should not be placing additional hurdles to people running for office. Failure to encourage people to vote and placing additional hurdles to running for office are two effective tools for protecting incumbency.

Let us hope that the people of Virginia contact their elected officials and encourage them to make it easier to run for office and to encourage neighbors to get out and vote.