Are digital voter files undermining free and fair elections in the United States?
Could the United States’ democratic electoral processes be under assault at the hands of digital voter files? The emergence of the internet has propelled the world into a new era of digitization which has been left relatively unchecked by US government institutions. Political parties have exploited a gap between public records and digital databases for political purposes. The result is that parties are taking advantage of digital voter files that intricately piece together astonishingly accurate profiles of voters as a means of manipulating citizens before they can even take one step into the voting booth.
A report published by the Pew Research Center on February 12, 2018 indicated that voter files are crafted from “consumer data vendors, credit bureaus, political organizations and other sources” and that these files are “marketed as providing a rich and comprehensive record for nearly every American adult”. Additionally, the report stated that “commercial voter files typically offer scores for things like partisanship and expected turnout for future elections generated through predictive models”. This byproduct of digitization should alarm any good liberty loving supporter of Democracy because it gives a cold hard slap to the face of free and fair election processes which are vital to democratic institutions.
Before the progressive era in the United States, electioneering power was strongly concentrated in the hands of corrupt political machines. The secret ballot was supposed to be a tool to take power out of the hands of big party bosses and restore it back into the hands of the people. Digital voter files are starting to stack the deck against voters and back in favor of the two dominant political leviathans in the United States: the Democratic and Republican parties. A secret ballot in America’s democratic elections reduces fraud, coercion, and guard against corrupt practices that result in manipulating voters at the ballot box. The very foundation of American democracy rests on this critical component of its voting systems. Without this feature, liberal democracy in the US would fall like a flimsy house of cards by diminishing the very mechanism voters have at their dispose to periodically scrutinize policy makers and hold the entire system to account.
Opponents are quick to point out that political parties and the campaigns of candidates have a right to free speech. They argue that digital voter files are simply an updated 21st century approach to effectively get their message out and increase participation in the democratic process. After all, isn’t increased voter turnout supposed to be good for a democratic country? In response to this claim, consider the secrecy building a voter file is shrouded in and the stupefying accuracy with which political parties can predict how a voter will vote before they cast their ballot. Again, the Pew Research Center reported in their study conducted on five separate digital voter databases, that voter information was accurately matched within each file separately with “79%, 77%, 69%, 69%, and 50% respectively” for files 1-5. When taken all together, the accuracy of matching a voter increased to a point where “91% were identified in at least one of the five commercial voter files”. As if this isn’t enough to alarm voters, the study further concluded that “modeled partisanship is correct for a majority of cases”.
Additionally, predictive models for voter turnout were also extremely accurate and the algorithms crafted by each commercial vendor has, according to Pew, “their own ‘secret sauce’ that goes into their model”. Let that sink in…. Yes, political parties aren’t able to sit in the voting booth with the voter as they fill out their ballot and cast their vote. However, the extensive and accurate “secret sauce” predictive modeling voter files construct is equivalent to the same operative walking into the booth after the voter has left and pencil rubs the textured surface of previously filled out ballot. The parties and their operatives will then have captured enough information about the voters after an election to manipulate citizens in future elections. Or, as a proper partisan would say, “target” voters…isn’t that cute?
But is there a country that is already addressing this issue with legal safeguards with respect to voter information? Why yes, there is. All one has to do is look across the pond to the UK. Britain has stricter campaign regulations on how political parties can campaign in their country and what information can be accessed as it relates to voter preferences. The result is higher rates of electoral volatility and decreased rates of party loyalty.
Electoral volatility is defined as “the degree of change in voting behavior between elections”. It should come as no surprise that there is a difference between the rate of cross-party voting and party loyalty between voters in Britain and voters in the United States. Electoral volatility has declined in the US, meaning voters are sticking with their party through thick and thin.
This development hasn’t occurred by accident. This is a symptom of a greater problem plaguing US elections. Campaign finance laws with massive loop holes and Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United vs. FEC have strengthened the role of money in US politics and spawned entities like PACs, Super PACs, and 527’s. Compare that to the UK system, where political parties are restricted from running political advertisements on television, can’t campaign on the eve of Election Day, and can only access residential information of voters when canvassing door to door at citizens homes. This is in stark contrast to how things are done in the US.
Not only has US campaign finance laws widened the mechanisms political parties can use to get their message out, but coupled with unregulated digital voter files, parties now have more power than ever to manipulate voters. If Americans want to restore trust in their institutions and protect the integrity of their democratic election systems, perhaps digital voter files should be regulated. Most people can agree that voter privacy should be protected. But what type of information political parties can access is a serious conversation the country can’t continue to put off any longer.
Clearly, this issue deserves more examination from policy makers and academics than it has currently received. Political operatives might decry the new limitations on their operational abilities regulation might bring. But this is a sacrifice Democracy can and must endure. The worst thing could happen from regulation would be that political parties might actually have to suffer the minor inconvenience of trying to win the hearts and minds of voters with their policy proposals , instead of tools of manipulation, if they want to earn the right to have their hands on the reins of power.