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Voter privacy a subject ready for debate

Campaign methods used in the recent election may spark debate on the information government makes available about voters and their voting behavior.

This election day, after voting, someone posted on their Facebook page: “I’m not comfortable with the GOP observer writing down the names of those who appear to vote.”

Elsewhere on Facebook and other online sites stories like this were common: “I received a palm card that had names and addresses of my neighbors, and whether they voted in the last four elections. This was supposed to motivate me, a woman voter, to vote. It actually freaked me out that someone is distributing that information without my consent.”

The practice referred to in the first comment — poll watching — is common and has been used for decades. The practice objected to by the second writer is new. By sending mail or email informing people of the voting practices of their neighbors, campaigns attempt to shame people into voting. Research suggests shaming is effective in motivating people to vote.

Both major parties and independent groups from all sides of the political spectrum used this technique this year.

From social media and news stories, it seems that people are surprised to learn that their voter information is a public record. It’s important to know that the contents of your ballot — that is, which candidates you voted for — is secret. Here’s what anyone can acquire in Kansas about voters (other states may be different, but I think most are similar):

Voter registration ID number, name, address, mailing address, gender, date of registration, date of birth, telephone number (if the voter supplies it; it is not required) whether the voter is on the permanent advance list, party registration, precinct number, and all the different jurisdictions the voter lives in such as city council district, county commission district, school district, Kansas House and Senate districts, and others.

Then, for each election you can learn whether the voter voted, and by which method (mail, advance in person, polling place). For primary elections, you can learn whether the voter selected a Republican or Democratic ballot.

(I should mention that in Kansas this information is supplied in a clumsy format that is difficult to use. I’ve developed procedures whereby I restructure this data to a relational data model that allows for proper analysis.)

Other organizations may enhance these records with data of their own. For example, in the government-supplied voter file, many telephone numbers are missing. Others are out-of-date, especially as households abandon traditional telephone service for cell phones. So candidates may use services that provide telephone numbers given names and addresses. Or, organizations may add other data purchased from marketing research services, such as magazines subscribed to, etc.

It would be useful to have a debate over whether the fact of being a registered voter and the act of voting should be a public record. This is the first election where people have become widely aware of the nature of the voting information that is available, and how campaigns and advocacy groups use it. I wonder if the new awareness of the availability of this information will deter people from registering and voting?

As far as government transparency and open records is concerned, we can distinguish voting data from other government data. When we ask for records of spending, contracts, correspondence, and the like, we asking for information about government and the actions government has taken.

But voter data is information about action taken by people, not by government. There’s a difference.

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