For the legacy media, the story of Democrats’ recent wins in Georgia is the story of Stacey Abrams. According to this narrative, after Abrams lost the 2018 gubernatorial race, she launched Fair Fight to stop Republicans from allegedly engaging in voter suppression and to register thousands of new voters.
The career of another Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson, illustrates a starkly different response to political defeat. Like Abrams, Johnson suffered a tough loss. In the 1941 Democratic Senate primary, Johnson initially thought he’d won. But his wily opponent, Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, had instructed key precincts to hold off reporting their tallies until he saw how many votes he’d need. When O’Daniel’s districts finally came in, Johnson’s lead vanished. Three days after the election, Johnson found he’d lost by just under 2,000 votes.
The true story of Democrats’ recent victories in Georgia may be quite different from the authorized version and may involve characters conspicuously absent from it.
Johnson never lost another election. In 1948, he again ran in the Democratic Senate primary and made it to a runoff vote. This time, Johnson’s opponent appeared to win by a small margin, but within days, officials found 200 more votes for Johnson in the now-infamous Box 13 from the tiny town of Alice, Texas. Never mind that the last 200 names on the rolls in Box 13 were written in different ink, all in the same handwriting, and in alphabetical order. Johnson was declared the winner by 87 votes out of about a million cast. That win boosted a political career that ultimately led Johnson to the White House.
Despite the media’s mythologizing account of Abrams and her work in Georgia, there is reason to suspect the realpolitik spirit of Lyndon B. Johnson is alive and well in Democratic campaigning. The true story of Democrats’ recent victories in Georgia may be quite different from the authorized version and may involve characters conspicuously absent from it.
In the weeks before Georgia’s momentous election on January 5, 2021, some voters received an unusual letter supposedly from an institution called the Center for Civic Information (CCI). The outside of the envelope enticingly declared, “INSIDE: YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD’S VOTING GRADE.”
The enclosed CCI letter listed seven neighborhoods by individual residents’ names, as in “John Doe’s Neighborhood.” Each recipient’s neighborhood, designated with that recipient’s name, topped the list.
Next to this list were two columns. The first was headed “Current Grade” and contained letter grades for each neighborhood. The second column was headed “2021 Runoff Election Grade” and contained blanks for grades that supposedly would be awarded after January 5.
What did this mean? The letter explained, “Dear [recipient’s name]: ARE YOU AND YOUR NEIGHBORS PARTY VOTERS?”
The CCI’s letter claimed its records show “most Americans vote for candidates from both parties.” But, the letter continued, “some people keep blindly voting based on party alone.” The CCI explained it was “sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to publicize which nearby neighborhoods actually vote for candidates from both parties” (emphasis added). It said:
This chart shows your neighborhood in comparison with other nearby neighborhoods, giving a grade (A = always votes across party lines, and F = never votes across party lines) based on how often the neighborhoods have voted for candidates from both parties. These reflect the real voting records in nearby neighborhoods.
The letter ominously closed:
After the January 5th Runoff Election, we intend to mail an updated chart. You and your neighbors will all know which neighborhoods vote the candidate, and which just vote for the party. So don’t be a party voter, and vote for candidates from both parties this Election Day.
The letter was signed by “Paul and Aaron” but omitted their last names. It concluded with a P.S., “On Tuesday, January 5th, please do your civic duty and vote the candidate, not the party.”
Here is the entire letter:
Voters across Georgia described receiving similar letters, as reported here, here, and here. Recipients were disturbed by the idea someone was tracking their voting choices and by the threat to disclose those choices publicly, contrary to the American system’s cherished tradition of a secret ballot. An institution with a similar name, the Center for Civic Innovation, evidently received so many complaints about the CCI letter that it issued a statement denying it had anything to do with it.
Who sent this unsettling letter and why? The CCI’s website is a nearly blank billboard containing links to two Georgia state websites with information about polling places and early voting. The CCI website does not contain any information about the organization itself. Nothing about what the CCI is or does. Nothing about founders, directors, members, employees, or supporters. No statement of purpose. Not even an address.
The website also notably does not repeat the CCI letter’s admonition voters should vote for candidates from both parties.
Virginia’s business entity database shows CCI was formed on December 2, 2020, just 34 days before Georgia’s runoff election.
The Virginia records give CCI’s office address as 4701 Cox Road Suite 285, Glen Allen, Virginia. But that is not an office, merely the address for a registered agent for service.
The Virginia records identify two people involved with CCI. First, the Articles of Incorporation show CCI was incorporated by Graham Wilson.
And the Virginia records reveal CCI has one director, Aaron Strauss.
Graham Wilson is a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie in Washington, D.C. His “clients include the Democratic National Committee as well as other party and candidate committees.”
Perkins Coie generally has strong ties with the Democratic party. National Review reported Perkins Coie has “been paid at least $41 million for its political work by Democratic-affiliated organizations” and additional sums for “legal work for many left-wing nonprofits.”
CCI was presumably incorporated by this Democrat-affiliated law firm to aid the Democratic candidates in Georgia’s runoff election. But how?
According to netrootsnation.org, Strauss, CCI’s lone identified director, holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University in “political methodology and microtargeting.” He is “a leading proponent of using scientific experimentation and data analysis in politics” and has worked as “the Targeting & Data Director” for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Strauss’s bio also notes he has “developed state-of-the-art voter file databases”:
Strauss brags on his Twitter page that he “used science to help defeat Trump,” although he does not explain how:
And Strauss’s personal website elaborates on his work for Democrats and the “progressive community” and his desire to “innovate faster than the other side”:
Why would Strauss sign the CCI letter pressuring voters to split their votes in the Georgia runoff election?
Strauss’s bios do not evidence a bipartisan or nonpartisan spirit generally. His resume strongly suggests he thinks voters should vote for progressive Democrats like Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock whenever possible. And his tweets following the January 5 election show he was pleased with Democrats following their victory in the Georgia runoff elections and uninterested in bipartisanship:
Although Strauss is obviously a committed Democrat, the CCI letter was not partisan on its face. How could a letter urging people to vote for candidates from both parties help Democrats?
The answer appears to be Strauss’s expertise in “microtargeting” and “voter file databases.”
Microtargeting is “a form of targeting that uses recent technological developments to gather large amounts of online data” to “create and convey messages that reflect an individual’s preferences and personality.”
A Pew Research Center article explains voter files “give a nationwide picture of voter registration and election turnout” and usually include “information from outside data sources (such as consumer data vendors, credit bureaus and political organizations).” Data analysts use voter files for predictive modeling, forecasting each potential voter’s “partisanship and expected turnout for future elections.”
According to a CBS News article, voter data analysis is now “so precise that many tools allow campaign managers to target individual voters with powerful and highly customized messages.”
In short, data analysts like Strauss can reasonably predict which individuals are likely to vote in a particular election and for whom they are likely to vote.
Using microtargeting analysis, the CCI almost certainly sent its letter only to likely Republican voters and not to likely Democratic voters. There is no reason an organization incorporated and run by Democrats would urge likely Democratic supporters to vote for the other side in such an important race. And, as noted earlier, the CCI website does not tell everyone to “vote for candidates from both parties this Election Day.” That message was reserved only for the presumed recipients of CCI’s letters: likely Republican voters.
Despite invoking a facially nonpartisan principle (i.e., you should vote for candidates of both parties in the runoff election to show you are not a party voter), the CCI letter was evidently intended to have a partisan purpose and effect. By trying to shame only Republican voters into voting for candidates from both parties, the letter apparently aimed to shift some Republican votes to Democratic candidates. Likely Democratic voters, on the other hand, would not receive the letter and feel no similar pressure to shift any of their votes to Republican candidates. The net effect of the letter would be to decrease Republican and increase Democratic tallies in the runoff election.
The CCI letter appears to be based on a political science experiment conducted in 2006. Researchers tested the effects of social pressure on voter turnout.
As part of the experiment, voters received a letter informing them their voting records are public information. That letter, now known in academic circles as the Neighbors Letter, revealed both the recipients’ and their neighbors’ voting turnout history. The Neighbors Letter also informed recipients that a follow-up mailing after the upcoming election would report to the neighborhood each recipient’s turnout in the election.
Here is an example of the researchers’ Neighbors Letter, which is plainly the model for the CCI letter:
Researchers found the Neighbors Letter was remarkably effective. It increased turnout by an astounding 8.1 percent.
The researchers concluded “the influence of a single piece of direct mail turns out to be formidable when (and only when) social pressure is exerted” and “[e]xposing a person’s voting record to his or her neighbors turns out to be an order of magnitude more effective than conventional pieces of partisan or nonpartisan direct mail.”
Strauss is well acquainted with the Neighbors Letter experiment. Long before becoming CCI’s director, he wrote about the striking effectiveness of the Neighbors Letter in an article on optimizing voter turnout. Examining the 2006 experiment, Strauss concluded the “social pressure of seeing your or your neighbors’ vote records” was “extremely successful” at motivating voters.
The researchers’ 2006 Neighbors Letter differed importantly from the CCI letter. Whereas the Neighbors Letters was a nonpartisan effort to pressure people to vote, the CCI letter tried to pressure certain people to change for whom they voted. The CCI letter also falsely implied to recipients that their vote is publicly known and that neighborhoods are “graded” based on how often they vote for candidates from both parties.
Despite these substantive differences, the CCI letter used the same “social pressure” technique that researchers found was so effective in 2006. The CCI letter threatened to disclose recipients’ voting habits publicly to pressure them to change their voting behavior.
Did the CCI letter bully enough Republican voters to shift one of their votes to a Democratic candidate so that Democrats won? The 2006 Neighbors Letter experiment shows it’s possible.
Wasn’t the CCI’s letter a sophisticated form of voter suppression? And so isn’t it a myth Democrats won in Georgia through a “fair fight”?
In the November general election, Republican Perdue received 2,462,617 votes. Suppose each of those Republican voters received the CCI letter in December. The 2006 experiment found the Neighbors Letter affected the behavior of about 8 percent of recipients. So what if 8 percent of those who voted for Perdue in November shifted one of their two votes in the January runoff election to a Democrat? That would be 197,009 votes transferred from Republican to Democratic candidates.
When the two Democrats won on January 5, Warnock beat Loeffler by 93,272 votes, and Ossoff beat Perdue by 54,944 votes. The Democrats’ combined margin of victory was 148,216 votes, equal to a shift of 74,108 votes. That’s well below the 197,009 votes that would have been transferred from Republicans to Democrats in this hypothetical, which would produce a significant margin of 394,018 votes.
Maybe the CCI letter was sent to fewer voters or was less effective than in this hypothetical. But even then given Democrats’ very small margin, it’s not outside the realm of possibility the CCI letter led to Democrats’ victory on January 5.
Irrespective of the letter’s effect, there’s no doubt the CCI letter was disingenuous. It invoked a fake civic duty, provided misinformation, and pressured recipients to vote a certain way by threatening to embarrass them publicly.
And aside from how many votes the CCI letter changed, it likely sowed distrust among a portion of the electorate, including doubt about the legitimacy of the election’s outcome. Of the recipients who resisted the pressure to change their votes, how many still worried their neighbors would fall for the CCI letter? How many felt a pang of paranoia that the election was apparently being manipulated by shadowy figures in the background? The events on January 6 at the Capitol show how dangerous such doubt and paranoia can be.
Nothing about the CCI letter makes our democracy better. Someone should ask Abrams about the Center for Civic Information. What exactly is CCI’s connection to her party and its supporters? Wasn’t CCI’s letter a sophisticated form of voter suppression? And so isn’t it a myth Democrats won in Georgia through a “fair fight”?
C. Murray is an attorney.