When Doug Odegaard opened up his mail one day this week, he saw an elections letter that made him uneasy.
Americans For Limited Government, a group from Virginia, had sent him a list of voters in his neighborhood, and it had noted whether each had cast ballots in 2004 and 2008. It said an updated “audit” would be sent after the 2012 election.
“When I looked at this, I thought, how much of this is bogus? And how much of it is real?” Odegaard said Thursday.
The letter listed records for both Odegaard and his wife, and she reminded him that at least some of the information wasn’t accurate. The voter history said she hadn’t cast a ballot in 2004, but she remembered doing so because she was in Africa on election day and watched returns from overseas.
This election is bringing a lot of expected haze and noise to campaigns, Odegaard said, but the letter troubled him partly because of the personal – and incorrect – information it shares. He’s been voting in Missoula County since 1990 and hasn’t seen anything like it in previous election years.
“What is the purpose behind it? I’ve read this letter over and over,” said Odegaard, whose letter is posted with this story on Missoulian.com.
In emails and a prepared statement, Americans For Limited Government’s Richard Manning responded. It’s the first year the organization has sent such a mailing, and the letter targets people who “have a tendency to vote but for whatever reason have failed to do so at the most critical moments,” said Manning, communications director.
“(The) mailing has one goal and one goal only, to increase participation in the electoral process,” Manning said in the statement. “We firmly believe that people who sit on the sidelines and do not engage in selecting our leaders are abandoning not just their right to a say but are diminishing everyone’s rights.”
The group aims to “prevent the continued expansion of government,” and it’s “aggressive and nonpartisan,” according to its website, getliberty.com. It sent 2.75 million letters to 19 states; it mailed roughly 36,000 to Montanans, according to Manning.
The letter Odegaard received thanks voters for their dedication, and it offers its “audit” of whether seven people in the Lower Miller Creek neighborhood voted in 2004 and 2008. It has a column for 2012, too, and each entry is marked “pending.”
“I hope the above vote history record is informative,” reads the letter. “As a further service, we will be updating our records after the expected high turnout for the Tuesday, November 6, 2012 election. We will then send an updated vote history audit to you and your neighbors with the results.”
Manning said it was in the group’s interest to send out data that was 100 percent correct, but some errors could be expected: “The data came from a contractor’s compilation of publicly available voter records, and inevitably an extremely small percentage had entry errors.”
In his prepared remarks, Manning noted other groups also have recently mailed “get out the vote pieces,” but those letters “either insult or intimidate” recipients. He identified MoveOn.org and the AFL-CIO in Oregon.
“While some may find the ability of campaigns or civic groups like ALG to access voting history worrisome, the reality is that in a representative democracy using voter lists and histories is a fundamental tool,” Manning said.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics at FollowTheMoney.org, Americans for Limited Government is a “conservative policy organization.” It spent $3.66 million on political contributions, all on ballot measures, from 2004 to 2010; in that same time period, it spent $18,161 in Montana in 2004 to keep term limits in place, the records state.
The Americans for Limited Government could not immediately confirm the figures or share the amount it’s spending this year in Montana.
The letter has come to the attention of Missoula County elections administrator Vickie Zeier, who has been fielding calls from concerned voters. She said other people have told her their information isn’t accurately presented in the mailing, and they have another complaint.
“The reason I’ve been getting calls is people are unhappy that their neighbors are seeing this information,” Zeier said. “A lot of people don’t realize election information is public.”
She also said the Montana Votes system didn’t go live until 2005, so she isn’t sure how the group is collecting history from 2004 because counties had individual databases before then.
That mailing is one of many the Montana Secretary of State’s Office is getting calls about, said Terri McCoy, communications director. But she said the secretary of state does not control the letters coming from third parties.
“Those mailings are not affiliated with the Secretary of State’s Office and the county election offices,” McCoy said.