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Political Campaigns and Voter Privacy

-- By LaizaMelena - 14 Jan 2012

Online campaigning has been lauded for its potential to democratize politics and mobilize voters, however, underneath these forms of technologically-enabled political participation there is an infrastructure and industry for voter data that is troubling. This paper describes the data practices of the 2008 Obama campaign, and explains how such practices may undermine important democratic norms, including privacy, institutional transparency, and political debate.

The 2008 Obama Campaign

Over the last two decades, political parties and candidates have build comprehensive voter files so campaigns will have a good sense of who their supporters are, which individuals are open to persuasion, and which citizens were likely to turn out. Voter files are comprised of pubic information and commercial data – everything from voter registration, party identification, and turnout records to magazine subscriptions, credit card, and grocery store purchases.

The 2008 Obama campaign has been the fullest realization of trends in the political field toward crafting better means of collecting, storing, analyzing, and acting upon data about citizens, their online behavior, and their social relationships. The Obama campaign was able to gather data on more than 250 million Americans using the electoral databases maintained by the Democratic Party and by private firms, in conjunction with a vast array of online behavioral and relational data collected from use of the campaign’s Web site and third-party social media sites. This data is estimated to include the widely reported 13 million e-mail addresses, 7 million cell phone numbers, and 223 million pieces of information that citizens volunteered about themselves to canvassers during the course of the election.

The data is important in identifying groups of likely voters and tailoring messages that appeal to blocks of voters. The Obama campaign utilized Strategic Telemetry to figure out the demographic and lifestyle characteristics of likely supporters and undecided voters and to develop data models of the voter’s predicted preference for Obama. Based on these models, the firm generated a universe of voter targets that shaped everything from the campaign’s marketing and communications efforts to candidate visits to swing states.

Democratic Concerns

There is a pervasive lack of transparency around what data political campaigns collect, generate, and how it is used during and after the campaign is over. Data moves fluidly across commercial and political contexts: parties and campaigns purchase data from commercial providers, just as corporate interests build their databases from a host of publicly available information. All of this fluidity means that an increasing number of interests have the ability to track the social associations of citizens, and the lack of transparency means that it is often hard to know where data is housed, who has access to it, and where it migrates once a candidate is elected. Even if citizens know about the information that has been collected on them there is no clear way for them to “opt out” of political datasets or manage the circulation and use of their private data.

For example, the Obama’s campaign team built an entirely new organization, Organizing for America, within the Democratic Party to house the voter data his campaign collected. The organization coordinates with the Administration’s communications team, using the voter’s contact information to speak directly to the campaign’s supporters on policy matters. This suggests the ways in which political data exists in perpetuity and can migrate to other contexts—often with little transparency to the movement of these databases and without the consent of those who are profiled.

Political Privacy

The increasing use of and sophistication of voter databases greatly threatens political privacy. Privacy helps ensure robust public debate by providing the opportunity for citizens to form their own viewpoints, craft arguments, and develop political identities free from government surveillance and public pressures. A private and anonymous space is important to develop political views and eventually take them into the public sphere where they can be properly debated. The danger with voter databases is that citizens will start to alter their behavior when they realize that their expressly political affiliations, ideological engagements, and even mundane lives are being aggregated to create a portrait of them that is then used for political purposes. When individuals are constantly watched, they are less likely to state their opinions or freely choose with whom to associate. Instead of expressing their true feelings, people will be inclined to adopt the conventional wisdom for fear of being punished if their views deviate from the norm.

Narrowing Democratic Debate

Candidates use voter data and electorate models to identify likely supporters, but these practices affects public discourse because it allows political actors to decide which citizens are worth engaging. Campaigning has become so costly that campaigns must spend their resources to engage citizens who might lean their way on a given issue and focus on creating narrow appeals that will have a maximal effect, given the political preferences they have identified through analytic modeling. Poor and minority voters who don’t donate to candidates and who vote in dependable blocs get cut out of the process. In essence, while targeted communication may increase turnout among certain segments of the population, data also allows political actors to identify which citizens should be left entirely out of the conversation.

Furthermore, voter data creates asymmetries in information between political actors and voters, which allows candidates and campaigns to easily manipulate the electorate. For example, campaigns are able to tailor their political information in terms of what individual voters want to hear based on the personal information they have about the individual. It allows candidates to present only select aspects of themselves to voters, providing an incomplete portrait of their policy preferences.


The data practices of campaigns are generally unregulated and proceed almost entirely without public attention. Political data receives scant public attention, in part because elected officials have little interest in holding hearings on practices that benefit them. Candidates and parties enjoy broad latitude with respect to their data practices, which should make citizens concerned about the lack of oversight, given advances in gathering, storing, analyzing, and acting upon data.

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Revision 2r2 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:24 - IanSullivan
Revision 1r1 - 14 Jan 2012 - 22:05:20 - LaizaMelena
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