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A nonprofit group wants more unmarried women, more young people and more people of color to vote. It recently sent 9 million letters targeted to Americans who fit this description urging them to register. That has upset some election officials who say the mailers have confused people. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The mailers clearly state that they're from the Voter Participation Center or its sister group, the Center for Voter Information. But the letter inside looks like it could come from the government. It says a review of publicly available records shows that the recipient may not be registered. And if so, they should complete and send in the enclosed official registration form. The problem is, the mailers don't just go to unregistered voters. Sometimes by mistake, they're sent to people who've died or are too young to vote or who are already on the rolls.
MEAGAN WOLFE: I myself received one of the letters saying that I wasn't registered to vote.
FESSLER: Meagan Wolfe is the chief election official for the state of Wisconsin. She knows better than most that she is registered. Her concern is that many other voters aren't so sure.
WOLFE: So a lot of times, we'll hear from our local election officials that they're hearing from their voters that their voters are confused. They don't know where to send those forms back. They don't know who's sending them. And one of the things that really confuses people is they don't know why they're receiving it.
FESSLER: They're receiving it because the nonprofit group wants to register some of the tens of millions of eligible voters who aren't registered now. But the mailings come just as election officials are fighting a wave of disinformation and a decline in public confidence in elections.
CHRIS CHAMBLISS: We've actually seen where it's been sent to pets.
FESSLER: Chris Chambliss, supervisor of elections for Clay County, Fla., says that's especially troubling because some voters think the mailings are from his office.
CHAMBLISS: All of that snowballs because you then start getting into the conversation of, well, if this is inaccurate, I wonder if my vote is accurate.
PAGE GARDNER: What we do is use the best data available.
FESSLER: Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, notes that there's no reliable list of unregistered voters in a state. So her group compiles one from multiple sources and then tries to screen out inaccuracies. They even have a list of more than 3,000 names to avoid, like Darth Vader and Rip Van Winkle and those commonly used for pets.
GARDNER: Because some people, when they sign up for a magazine or sign up for something, they'll use Fido, you know, Fido Smith. We don't mail to Fido.
FESSLER: Gardner admits there are still mistakes but says they're only a tiny fraction of the mailings. She says, in fact, the campaign has been highly successful, already registering about 4 million unmarried women, young people and people of color, voters who tend to be underrepresented. They also tend to vote Democratic. And while the Voter Participation Center is non-partisan, it has some liberal and Democratic ties. The group hopes to register a million more voters by November.
GARDNER: We're trying to get more and more people participating, and we're trying to make sure that people know how and have the access to participating in our democracy.
FESSLER: And indeed, many election officials say the Voter Participation Center is better than other registration groups. It alerts election offices in advance about their mailings and works with some states to clean up their lists. David Becker, an election consultant, says the campaign is a reflection of a sad reality, that even though states have made registering to vote easier, millions of people still aren't on the rolls.
DAVID BECKER: So there's always going to be a need for some third-party registration to fill in the gaps.
FESSLER: The challenge is doing it without turning too many people off. Maine's secretary of state, Matt Dunlap, thinks the mailings do more harm than good.
MATT DUNLAP: The effort itself is laudable. It's some of the mechanics I think that cause confusion, and that confusion then results in the exact opposite of what their goal is, which is to get people to participate in the process.
FESSLER: He'd like the mailings to stop, but Gardner says more are coming in April, June and September. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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