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Voter Privacy in the Digital Age

Trends underway

To understand voter privacy in the digital age, one must consider the implications of current trends in technology, campaigning, and election administration. Computerization of voter registration data, the rise of voter profiling by political campaigns, and the implementation of statewide voter registration databases are important trends impacting voter privacy today.

Computerization of voter registration data

Voter lists, historically maintained and disseminated on paper, in recent years have been converted to a digital format, making election administration more efficient. Computerization also enables campaigns to acquire voter data in a digital format, making the data easy to copy, enhance and redistribute.

In the early years of computerization, there was little standardization of database formats, and the floppy disks and magnetic tapes that election agencies used to distribute digital voter lists limited transferability. Today, voter list databases are often distributed by state and local election agencies on CD-ROM and provided in standardized formats that can work in virtually any database program. Because the recipients of these databases, such as political parties and campaigns, receive the data in a user-friendly format, it is easy for them to redistribute voter data to others on CD-ROM, via e-mail and on the World Wide Web.

The director of California’s Democratic Party explained to a reporter how technology is speeding up campaign access to voter data: “People are constantly asking for target data. They’ll want to know, how many Democrats with Latino surnames who voted in the primary and don’t have a Republican in the household are in this precinct. In the old days you had to submit that to a computer person. Three or four days later they would get back to you. Now we can provide that information in a couple of hours.”10

The rise of voter profiling

Computerization has deeply impacted campaign strategy. Political campaigns have become much more skillful and precise in their efforts to target desirable voters. “Voter profiling” is commonly practiced by political campaigns as a way to maximize the campaign's financial resources and effectiveness.

Voter profiling has greatly enabled campaigns to precisely target their mail, phone calls and door-to-door visits to those people who are most likely to vote. In the process of precisely targeting whom they want to reach, campaigns have become skilled at ignoring those they are not interested in reaching—primarily nonvoters and infrequent voters.

In order to profile voters, campaigns first acquire a list of registered voters in their electoral jurisdiction, typically from their state or local election agency, their political party or a private vendor. In addition to providing personal and contact information, voter lists also include voters’ history of election participation and often their preference to vote at a polling place or via absentee ballot.

Voter lists are often enhanced by campaigns, parties and private vendors who enrich the data by merging the lists with other databases that include more personal details about voters and their political preferences. Aristotle, the country’s largest private vendor of voter data, maintains and sells records on 157 million American voters that contain each voter’s registration data as well as their ethnicity, occupation, education, homeowner status and income level, whether they are catalog shoppers, and whether they have a history of making charitable or political donations. Aristotle’s records also note how many voters live in each household and whether they are of the same or different political parties. Aristotle’s records are accessible to virtually anyone in the world with a credit card and access to the Internet.11

The Internet is facilitating voter profiling in other ways as well. In 2000, online voter profiling helped get Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign on the Virginia primary ballot. In need of qualifying signatures, McCain had Aristotle match its voter profiles with the online profiles gathered from certain politically oriented Web sites. When a contracted site detected a Virginia Republican voter online, it displayed a banner ad inviting the voter to sign a McCain petition.12

Implementation of statewide voter registration databases

While voter lists have historically been maintained at the local level, in recent years a majority of states have started pooling the local records into one single statewide voter registration database. Currently, 37 states have a statewide voter database, updated at varying intervals. Several groups that issued election reform reports in the wake of the 2000 presidential election vote-counting problems in Florida recommended that states implement statewide voter registration databases to ensure that registration data is streamlined and up-to-date in order to prevent the inadvertant disenfranchisement of eligible voters.13

The “Help America Vote Act” (HR 3295), enacted in October 2002, requires all states to create and maintain standardized statewide voter databases. While a single database will likely promote administrative efficiency, it will also provide secondary users with a single source of all voter records within a state. This lowers the time barrier and financial cost to secondary users for acquiring voter data. Instead of having to obtain voter lists from individual counties and towns, the buyer needs to interface with only one election agency in each state.


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This page was first published on June 9, 2004 | Last updated on January 23, 2012
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