I Know if You Voted Last November

January 30, 2015

Nearly nine years ago two political scientists at Yale conducted an experiment to see whether publicizing the voting histories of individuals to their neighbors would increase voter turnout. This strategy took many years to catch on and started to come into vogue in 2010. Here in the land of steady habits we remained largely oblvious to what our Ivy League university had unleashed unto the rest of the world until the last election cycle. After the two parties deployed this tactic last year there was a lot of discussion about big data boogeymen and whether voting records should be public.

Connecticut has broad freedom of information statute that makes government records public unless they fall into an exemption. In practice information has different levels of accessibility depending on how it is produced and who uses it. One of the records that government maintains is the voting history of each individual. While people involved in politics are aware that this is public information it does not seem to be the case that the general public is aware.1

The reason voting records are public is not merely because it is helpful for parties to reach out to voters, but because it is a check against the validity of an election. A citizen can request a copy of the voter roll for a precinct and compare the number of people that are crossed off as having voted to the number of ballots that were cast at the precinct. If fraud is suspected they can go back to the voters on the rolls to ask them about whether or not they actually voted. If voting records were private then compromised poll workers could cast ballots for one candidate or another and then check off names and we would never know the election was compromised.

So I think it would be foolish to make voting records private. We do not want to lose this check and balance in our democracy. Furthermore voting records are used by campaigns to try and boost voter turnout. All things being equal we should prefer to live in a world where there is more voter turnout than a world with less voter turnout. Government should do the easy things that lead to more turnout whether it is giving parties the data they need to contact supporters or make it easier to register to vote online. Sometimes public information will be misused or unintended uses will occur but if there is a large public backlash I do not believe that parties will continue to deploy tactics that upset their voters.

  1. This has likely changed. 

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.