By Nora Macaluso
When you register to vote in any election, you may be giving out more information than you think. And, depending on where you live, that data may be readily available to anyone who wants it — no questions asked.
For his 2012 reelection campaign, Democratic President Barack Obama’s team pioneered the use of big data for political use, amassing a huge database of potential voters to target with ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Republicans followed suit — and now both parties have access to troves of data they can manipulate to target specific voter groups.
Campaigns use big data to “track voter participation and build their parties,” Connie Uthoff, of the George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies, told Digital Privacy News.
The problem is “state law varies about voter information, and states mandate how it can be used,” she said.
“State law varies about voter information, and states mandate how it can be used.”Connie Uthoff, George Washington University.
Representatives for the campaigns of Republican President Donald Trump, Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden, or the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, did not respond to requests for comment from Digital Privacy News.
Laws on public disclosure of party affiliation and other voter data vary by state.
In some states, anyone can request copies of registration lists; in others, they are available only to political parties and government agencies.
Some states require fees for access to the lists, while others make them available for free.
Records on voters’ party affiliation, home addresses and voting history are often readily available on state websites, providing what may be the most reliable way to find information on someone.
In many states, the dissemination or sale of individual voters’ information is not restricted.
Home Data on Governors
Aki Peritz, executive director of American University’s Center for Intelligence Policy and a former CIA counterterrorism analyst, detailed his quest to obtain information on individuals — he chose governors — in each state last year for a report in The Washington Post.
Peritz found information, including home addresses, for several of them.
“If you wanted to steal identities, this is completely legitimate information.”Aki Peritz, American University.
In some states — North Carolina is “the worst,” he said — a person’s address, race and voting record could be found simply by typing in the individual’s first and last name into a state website.
For definitive information on a North Carolina resident, “the most reputable source of information would be the voter database,” Peritz told Digital Privacy News.
“If you wanted to steal identities, this is completely legitimate information about every single voter out there,” he said.
Some states, such as California, require searchers to enter information about themselves before providing access to voter databases. In Michigan, a trip to a state office is necessary to get information on someone.
Fears of Data Leaks
Even in states with laws in place, voter information may be disseminated by accident or error.
Earlier this month, election officials in Madison County, Ill., raised concerns about some voters’ mail-in ballots being labeled with party affiliation, reports The Center Square, a project funded by the Chicago-based Franklin News Foundation.
One official told the news service that election judges, who process ballots, could discriminate based on the labeling.
Even if a state keeps personal information private, it may leak out to county websites or other venues, Peritz said.
A voting record shows whether a person has a history of voting absentee or at a specific polling place, so anyone wanting that information for nefarious reasons could stake out a location, he said.
“It would kind of cut to the chase if the bad guys knew exactly where you would be at a certain time,” Peritz said.
Uthoff, the associate director of the cybersecurity strategy and information management program at George Washington, told Digital Privacy News: “The way technology is today, you could pair (data from voter lists) with other information that could give you a comprehensive look at an individual — or you could potentially sell that information to somebody else.”
Little Interest in Restrictions
Despite knowing this, politicians, government regulators and the public at large seem to have little interest in restricting voter information, experts said.
“I think that data privacy’s not a priority for, really, anybody,” AU’s Peritz said. “These are legislative and administrative fixes — so if the secretary of state or legislature wanted to fix it, they could.”
A 2018 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication found that Republicans were less likely than Democrats to be spooked by having information about them made public.
“As it turns out, political party trumps everything, including race, including income,” Joseph Turow, a Penn professor and author of the study, told Digital Privacy News.
“Parties have access to huge amounts of data.”Joseph Turow, University of Pennsylvania.
Researchers did not ask participants directly about their views, but “looked at how people say they react emotionally to various scenarios,” Turow said.
The Impartiality Factor
In some states, voters must choose a party to vote in primary elections. This can be problematic for journalists, clergy and others who want to maintain reputations of impartiality, GW’s Uthoff said.
In 2020, society has become more polarized — and more people are concerned with keeping their affiliation private for fear of harassment, or just targeted advertising, she said.
“Parties have access to huge amounts of data,” Penn’s Turow said. “My concern is that, moving forward, they’re going to use even more data, even possibly biometric data” such as the sound of one’s voice.
“It’s hard to know how far political parties will go when it comes to using data about people, often without their knowing it,” he added.
Another concern is that political parties will defend their use of these tactics by arguing that they’re not marketers — and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment, he said.
Turow said he was involved in a 2012 study that found people were largely against political campaigns tracking them for ad targeting, though Americans seemed to be getting used to seeing tailored ads for political candidates and commercial products.
“That’s the whole purpose of this stuff,” Turow told Digital Privacy News: “Find out what people think — and use it.”
Nora Macaluso is a Philadelphia writer.
Sources (external links):
- NCSL list of state policies: Access To and Use Of Voter Registration Lists
- The Center Square: Illinois elections officials correcting issues with mail-in balloting
- Washington Post: Registered to vote? Your state may be posting personal information about you online.