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Progressive advocacy group wants you to vote, and they are not afraid to tell you

Getting multiple mailers from the Center for Voter Information or Voter Participation Center? 

You may be part of the “rising American electorate.” 

That’s what the organizations’ founder Page Gardner calls young people, people of color and unmarried women. She targets them with voter registration and absentee ballot requests forms through the Washington D.C.-based Center for Voter Information. A connected organization Gardner also founded, the Voter Participation Center, gets after white progressives with similar mailings.

It’s working. Gardner, who founded both groups in 2003, said CVI and VPC have sent out tens of millions of mailings to potential North Carolina voters, and claimed responsibility for about half of all absentee ballot applications submitted across the state. The State Board of Elections did not respond to requests for comment on the claim.

The “rising American electorate” now comprises 64% of the eligible voting population, but they do not vote in the strength of their numbers, Gardner said. In 2018, they were 62% of the voting population, she said, but the demographic only accounted for 53% of people who voted.

“The idea for both organizations is to close the gap in terms of participation and opportunity to have a voice and a say in this democracy,” Gardner said. 

Despite those seemingly patriotic intentions, election officials have not been particularly grateful.

Expansive and contentious

CVI and VPC’s mailing efforts have drawn criticism from election officials, who said that the groups’ mailers confuse voters, especially because their letters look like they could come from the government. The mailers have also gone, by mistake, to people who are already registered or too young to vote, according to NPR

“The State and County Boards of Elections encourage third-party groups to consider the overwhelming toll that misleading or confusing mailings and other outreach efforts take on elections resources and the damage they cause to voters’ confidence in elections,” wrote Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, in a press release posted Aug. 6.

Page Gardner, founder of both the Center for Voter Information and the Voter Participation Center (Courtesy of Page Gardner).

Two months earlier, CVI sent 80,000 absentee ballot applications to voters with their names and addresses filled out. That also prompted a press release from the State Board of Elections.  The state Legislature banned pre-filled forms in 2019, so those applications were invalid.  

ProPublica reported that President Donald Trump has used CVI’s blunders to stoke fears of voter fraud, after the organization sent 500,000 vote-by-mail applications to Virginia voters with the wrong return address. (Tom Lopach, president and chief executive officer of CVI and VPC, wrote a six-page open letter addressed to ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, highlighting alleged “significant factual and contextual inaccuracies” in the story.)  

Gardner said that election officials who claim that her organizations’ mailers mislead voters are “misinformed.” 

“We would not have generated more than half a million vote-by-mail applications if our [mailers] discouraged voters,” Gardner said.

This year, CVI has sent out more than 20 million pieces of mail in North Carolina, Gardner said, while VPC has mailed over 12 million. The organizations are focusing on battleground states, where voters may have received up to five absentee ballot request forms from either group so far, Gardner said. 

How that letter got in your mailbox

Before sending any letters, CVI and VPC turn to data.

The organizations track their target electorate’s voting activity through voter files, Gardner said. The database allows the organizations to know whether people have registered to vote, voted and how their voting frequency compares to the rest of their state. This information is used to determine which mailer to send someone, when to stop sending mailers and each person’s “voting propensity score,” which is shown as a small bar graph printed on a letter sent to the voter. 

The organizations track the response rate of the mail-in ballot applications mailed to voters through individualized barcodes printed on the return envelopes, Gardner said. 

When a voter mails a CVI or VPC return envelope to their county board of elections, she said, the U.S. Postal Service scans the barcode, which alerts the groups that the voter has sent out their absentee ballot application. 

Later, the organizations check the state’s voter files to see if the individual has officially voted, Gardner said. 

Before starting this year’s mailing effort in January, Gardner said that CVI and VPC conducted experiments to learn how voters respond to absentee ballot request applications mailed to them.

The organizations studied a treatment group, voters who received the mailers, and a control group, voters who did not. They then looked at the response rate of the treatment group and the number of people who registered and ultimately voted in both groups, Gardner said.

The finding was that the likelihood of voters acting (voting or registering to vote) increased with the number of mailers that they received, Gardner said, which explains the groups’ current strategy. 

“That’s why VPC and CVI are such successful organizations,” Gardner said. “We use metrics-based and science-based research to run our programs and we measure everything.” 

Who are these organizations?

CVI and VPC comprise about 25 staff members, many of whom work for both organizations, Gardner said. 

In 2018, CVI raised $19,038,970 in revenue and by the end of the year, had $4,674,696 in net assets, according to the organization’s 990 forms. In the same year, VPC raised $26,319,659 in revenue and $4,161,042 in net assets, 990 forms show. 

Gardner, who is currently living in Durham, N.C., is also the founder of Women’s Voice Women Vote, which she described as a “forerunner organization to VPC.” After identifying a gap in voter turnout between unmarried and married women, Gardner created the organization to target unmarried women as an electorate. 

Women’s Voice Women Vote was mixed in controversy during the 2008 primaries when the organization made robocalls to voters in 11 states telling them to register to vote days after the voter registration deadline. Many of the registered voters who received the calls were expecting to vote in the primary that day, and said that they were confused whether they were registered or not, according to NPR

NPR also reported that these calls indicated typical signs of voter suppression — attempting to drive down voter turnout by sowing confusion. The robocalls seemed to target Black communities, where President Barack Obama was expected to be well ahead of Secretary Hillary Clinton. 

“A dozen years ago, a forerunner organization for VPC issued some robocalls in North Carolina. The call was a follow up to a successful registration mailer and did not meet all the state regulations regarding disclaimers,” Gardner wrote in response to the Robocall allegation. “We corrected the issue and VPC and CVI have helped more than 354,000 North Carolinians register to vote since our founding.” 

Women’s Voice Women Vote had ties to the Clintons: A former leadership staffer worked as Secretary Clinton’s campaign manager and a former board member was President Clinton’s chief-of-staff. Gardner herself previously worked on President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, NPR reported.

At top: letters mailed by the Center for Voter Information, which has sent over 20 million pieces of mail to NC voters in an effort to increase turnout among young people, people of color and unmarried women. Photo by Rose Wong.