With the November election looming large, voters are being bombarded with political advertising and surveys—but is voter privacy being breached in the process?
This election year, political surveys and advertising seem to be very “targeted” and personal. One blatant example involved an individual who received a phone call last week from someone who said they were with the Obama campaign, asking him if he was going to vote for Obama in the upcoming November election. When he responded with “That’s a privacy issue,” the caller immediately responded back with “Oh, yes…well we were just calling to see if people who voted for him last time were going to vote for him this year. You have a nice evening.”
So how did the caller, whose area code was from San Jose, California, know who this individual in Colorado had voted for in the 2008 election? It would make sense had this individual been a registered Democrat, but since 2001 he has been registered as an Independent. Prior to 2001, he was a registered Republican.
Upset that his voter confidentiality had apparently been breached, this individual began querying others about whether they had received similar calls. What he discovered was that his experience was not an isolated incident. In one particular case, another individual said their voting choices were known all the way back to 2000.
Increasingly, more people are finding that they are being “targeted” with information geared specifically to them based on their voting habits and choices. So how do political campaigns gather information about you, and how is that your choices are known?
There are many ways political campaigns can gather information about you. Some of the more common ways include voter party registration, political and charitable donations, age, address, and even hobbies. But this election there is another way political campaigns can track you—“political cookies.”
Political cookies can track your online identity and match it to information gathered offline about you for specific “micro-targeting.” Many Web surfers do not even realize how their data is being bought and sold and even combined. Everything from the websites you visit to your Facebook and Twitter accounts—all of these give detailed, specific information about you, including about your political leanings.
Critics say that this combination of offline and online data may be an invasion of privacy, but many political campaigns are making full use of these political cookies and the practice is becoming widespread. Recently, the website ProPublica detailed how Microsoft and Yahoo are offering political campaigns easier access to voters.
Whatever the truth is regarding actual ballot secrecy, what is important in understanding political behavior is whether or not people believe their voting decisions are kept secret. Recent polls, however, suggest that many people no longer believe that their ballot choices are kept secret. This is unfortunate, because there is a strong psychological component to voting behavior.
Secret ballots were introduced to enhance voters’ effective freedom of choice and to reduce the chances of bribery and coercion. Voter secrecy matters. If people believe that their confidentiality may be compromised and that their choices are not protected, this will not only affect their vote but it also undermines the benefits of a secret ballot. Ultimately, there are serious repercussions on election outcomes.
“A secret vote is an essential integrity safeguard because it allows voters to cast their ballot in full independence. If a vote is not secret or can be identified during vote counting, some people might be intimidated into not voting as they had intended. Secrecy makes intimidation or bribery less effective.” – ACE Project
As it appeared in print:
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