You can add rogue landlords to the list of potentially sinister characters, along with far-right Proud Boys, Boogaloos, and militia members, looming over one of the most fraught elections in American history.
Two weeks before Election Day, voters in New York and Colorado received letters from their landlords. Democratic candidates were sure to raise taxes, the landlords warned in the letters, and it would be a shame if those candidates won and the landlords had to, say, jack up rent.
While election security experts sound alarms about partisan “poll watchers” potentially intimidating voters, letters from landlords represent a grayer area of voter-influence. The letters received by renters this week never explicitly threaten to raise rents if they vote Democratic: they just heavily imply it could happen. It’s a probably-legal tactic adding more pressure to a tinderbox of an election cycle.
“I would equate receiving this letter from my landlord to my boss sending me a letter telling me who to vote for,” John Gordon, a renter in Plattsburgh, New York, who received a letter pushing a vote for an ex-cop Republican candidate for mayor, told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, residents of a Fort Morgan, Colorado, trailer park received a letter on Monday warning of a possible rent hike if Democrats won the presidency.
“TO ALL TENANTS,” read the letter, first reported by local NBC affiliate 9News. “Please understand IF Joe Biden is elected as our next President, everything you do and have to pay for will change completely.
Do you know something we should about election intimidation, or are you receiving threats or other election-related messages yourself? Email Kelly.Weill@TheDailyBeast.com or securely at firstname.lastname@example.org from a non-work device.
“Everything will be increased. Like paying ALOT (sic) more in taxes, utilities, gasoline, groceries, new permits, fees and regulations…everything! This also means YOUR RENT will be increased to cover these expenses. Most likely, rent would DOUBLE in price! IF the current President is re-elected, WE WILL NOT RAISE THE RENT FOR AT LEAST 2 YEARS!
“Voting is your choice and we are not telling you how to vote. We are just informing our tenants what WE will do according to the election results. If Trump wins, we all win. If Biden wins, we all lose. VOTE on November 3, 2020.”
The letter was signed by the owner of the trailer park, Bernie Pagel, who did not return a request for comment. A Twitter account under Pagel’s name tweeted a similar message last month. The account has been a prolific Trump supporter since at least 2016, when it posted pictures of large Trump signs in a trailer park. On Facebook, Pagel posted pictures of the same signs.
Tenants who received the letter told 9News that they were alarmed by what they interpreted as voter intimidation.
““I mean everybody was pretty shocked, honestly,” resident Cindy Marquez told the outlet. “It was mainly hurtful, you know? How could someone say something like that or basically threaten us according to something that we can’t control?”
She added that her family lives paycheck to paycheck, and barely makes ends meet. A massive rent increase could displace the family, she said.
The same day the Marquez family received their letter, Gordon and his fellow renters in Plattsburgh received a similar letter from their landlord, WCAX first reported.
The letter did not concern the presidential election, but the city’s mayoral contest, also on Nov. 3. Landlords warned that, should the Democratic mayoral candidate win, “eventually they will have to raise taxes to recoup losses where most business people will have to choose to absorb the increase or in our case, raise rents. WE don’t want that to happen!”
The letter added that “we strongly encourage you to consider voting” for the Republican candidate, a retired Plattsburgh Police lieutenant. Neither of the two landlords who listed their email addresses on the letter returned requests for comment.
Gordon said the letter read like an attempt to pressure him into a Republican vote.
“I cannot say whether the intent was to intimidate or not,” he told The Daily Beast. “However, it is my opinion that the intention is irrelevant. The letter makes a clear association between voting for a preferred candidate and the issue of whether or not rents are raised. Rent increases are entirely a business decision on the part of the landlord; they would not be forced to take any action based on the election outcomes. It would be a choice made by the landlord.”
The Colorado and New York letters are not the first time landlords have been accused of putting their thumbs on the scale for their preferred candidates in recent years. Last year, a reporter at an Idaho newspaper received one such letter from his landlord, implying that rents could go up according to the results of a local election. The landlord then told renters his preferred votes on two upcoming ballot measures, a move one legal scholar called a possible “veiled threat.”
That said, election law experts in Idaho said the letter was probably legal. And a New York legal expert told WCAX that the letter Gordon received probably did not count as voter intimidation, and could more accurately be classed as “electioneering or persuasive speech.”
Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, came to a similar conclusion when asked whether the letters in both Colorado and New York violated laws against voter intimidation.
“I do not believe that such laws would apply unless there was a threat as in: if you don’t vote for X, your rent will go up,” Hasen told The Daily Beast.
Gordon, who is currently running as an independent for a city council seat, is also the chair of the Plattsburgh Tenants’ Advocacy Association. He said the letter points to larger problems in the city—where most residents are renters—and in the American housing system writ large.
“This letter is yet another expression of that disproportionate power that landlords enjoy in local politics,” he said.