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Privacy Perspectives | How Public Voting Data Is Being Used To Shame Voters Related reading: Notes from the IAPP, September 17, 2021




Hopefully you’ve voted today, and if you haven’t, hopefully, you will. But, if you don’t, that’s your business and your right.

Or is it really just your business?

For people across the state of Kansas this election season, individual voting data is being broadcast through mailers that include their names, addresses and whether they’ve voted in the past several elections. What’s the point of this mailer? Well, seemingly, it’s to nudge or intimidate or shame folks into voting.

According to a report from a local Kansas news affiliate, a group calling itself the Kansas State Voter Report is sending out the flyers. And naturally, it has many Kansas citizens up-in-arms.

“I don’t think that’s anybody’s business,” said one voter. “If you didn’t vote, you didn’t vote.”

But here’s the rub: It’s public information, so it’s legal.

In this age of big data, what used to be difficult—compiling massive data sets of voter records and targeting them to specific voters—has become easy. What was once “practical obscurity” is now almost as simple as clicking a mouse.

And what is truly obscure is the mystery group behind it all. The Kansas State Voter Report has been hard to track down. The Kansas affiliate was unable to contact the organization, and Sedgwick County's elections commissioner said, “Who are these people? I have no idea. They are not affiliated with any government entity that I’m aware of.” And to make matters worse, there’s nothing they can do about it—especially on voting day.

Something similar was recently experienced in New York. Last week, the Gothamist reported on a letter that New York Democrats received from the New York State Democratic Committee. Eerily similar to the mailer received by Kansas citizens, the letter intones, “Who you vote for is your secret … But whether or not you vote is public record.” It goes on to state, “Many organizations monitor turnout in your neighborhood and are disappointed by the inconsistent voting of many of your neighbors.”

Plus, the letter goes an unimaginable step further by threatening, “We will be reviewing the Kings County official voting records after the upcoming election to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014.”

This voter shaming is an extremely ineffective way of turning out the vote, and it’s a terrible way of using personal information.

One New York state voter said, “I was so taken aback by this creepy and almost threatening letter from the NY State Democratic Committee,” while another said, “I can’t believe they think this will actually make anyone more likely to vote…”

Plus, voters expressed a loss of control. One Kansas voter said, “All of us want to know if our personal information is being put out there. This is the digital age: Where do you go to delete … it? That is the big question.”

It’s safe to say he’d appreciate Europe’s concept of the right to be forgotten in this case.

I’m not trying to make this a discussion about party politics—to place blame on the Democratic or Republican parties. What sticks out to me is the questionable use of personal data, and how that can help to inform the business world’s use of its customers’ personal information. Here are three takeaways:

1. Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do;

2. Be transparent with what you’re doing with user data, and

3. If possible, give users control of their data.

Now, technically, the use of this voting data is legal, but, as we see from voter reaction, its use is creepy and likely ineffective. As one voter stated, “it certainly doesn’t make me want to vote for any of the Democratic establishment candidates.”

The same could be true of customers not appreciating how their data is used and refusing to buy your product.

Political campaigns, regardless of party affiliation, are gathering massive amounts of data and are using it in good and nefarious ways to get votes, often without voters knowing how their data is being used. The same can be said of the so-called data broker industry. Yes, there are good uses of personal information, and I’m not equating all data brokers to what we’re seeing in Kansas and New York, but any lack of transparency can have a real chilling effect on voters and customers alike.

Now, about that gridlock in Washington…

photo credit: secretlondon123 via photopin cc


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  • comment Jonathan • Nov 5, 2014
    Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's the right thing to do - indeed!
    I received a "voter report card" recently from an advocacy group that shall remain nameless...needless to say, I was unimpressed.   While I don't find it "creepy" because I'm fully aware that voter rolls are public, I strikes me as highly obnoxious and in poor taste (in fact, I initially wondered if an opponent was trying to discredit the group,  but I believe it was legit).  
    I'll give the sender some credit for transparency - it clearly identified itself.  But I will not ever donate to or therwise directly assist any organization that is so thoughtless with personal data.
  • comment Jedidiah • Nov 6, 2014
    Thanks for the comment, Jonathan. I crowd-sourced this issue on Facebook shortly after going to press. Looks like voter shaming was a common practice during this election cycle. Hopefully there has been enough outcry for organizations to realize that this type of use can really erode trust and damage a brand - whether we're talking about a political party, advocacy group or a product or service.