Law in the Internet Society

Houdini: Magic Election Data


The 2008 Presidential election cycle will be remembered as one where the assistance of technology to the winning campaign was critical at several junctures, and without the use of which by his campaign the United States would not have elected President Obama. A key part of his day of election efforts centered on the Houdini Project where information about voters who had already voted disappeared off call lists as if by magic. The rationale for this was that it increased the efficiency of Get out the Vote (GOTV) activities. This short analysis seeks to explore the presence of significantly more information about voters entering and staying in the electoral process.

GOTV and data

The traditional method of GOTV worked best in small sections of districts which contained supporters of a particular candidate. That candidate was able to field local residents in the weeks prior to the election to obtain promises of votes. Those names would be typed or printed out on paper with several carbon copies and hung on a wall. As soon as people were identified as having voted they were crossed off, and every four hours or so one copy of the list would be torn off and runners sent to houses to identify and encourage the voter to vote. At the end of the day the paper scrapped and the only data available to the candidate in the next cycle would be that in the minds of the repeat volunteers. This worked well in areas where a candidates’ voters was high but where the volunteers were thin on the ground and didn’t know the area and lists sometimes compiled in sequence that made little geographical sense the efficiencies were low.

These methods have developed considerably over the last 8 years. Nowadays it would be uncommon in the US for a list to come from one of a small number of databases most of which cover the whole country (the VAN, the VOTER vault, Catalyst) Moreover the those who record the voters as having voted no longer have to physically transfer the record but can phone the result in to a phone response system or upload via a web interface. Moreover that interface can handle the reporting of voting irregularities or issues and result in the triggering the dispatch of legal resources responses to major problems. Those volunteers assigned to drag voters to the polls can be tasked with up to the minute lists of voters extracted from the database as not yet voted.

Superficially, the change seems small - lists can be generated more than four times a day and they are likely to be more up-to-date. Practically, the process is significantly different – the tasks assigned to volunteers are more modular and the movement of data across the net and into the database no longer requires people to travel (sometimes long distances.) Skill sets of volunteers can be narrower and fewer people have to know the geography of the area. Fundamentally, this makes the deployment of resources more efficient by a significant factor – less unnecessary travelling between locations, and more effective – resources with scarce skills (such as personal relationships) can be deployed where they can be leveraged most.

Much more importantly though is that the data is persistent, granular, and linkable. Persistent inasmuch as it exists and can be used in subsequent election cycles. Granular in that the sharing by voters of the issues most important to them rather than just a pledge to vote provides significantly more insight about a voter. Most importantly it is linkable data handed over to a volunteer canvasser can be joined with data regarding magazine subscriptions, credit ratings etc. Now this doesn’t seem particularly nefarious until you consider the possibilities – political donation requests centered around your most important issue, calibrated with your credit rating, and aimed at generating a donation from the high school friend (identified because you have indicated you are friends on facebook) who very likely has a higher income since they subscribe to Conde Nast's travel magazine.

Possible solutions

The absence of anonymity online, tied to the ability to accumulate data within a campaign has only just begun to be exploited - Only subsequent to the election was it reported that Obama election sweatshirts prices were calibrated to the level of prior campaign donations-Though some of the data may become less important it is hard to see the Committee to re-elect Obama failing to use the data collected in 2008. Moreover, they will be building on technology not assembled on a deadline but quietly over 4 years. How can any opponent seek to challenge this effort without also having such an operation? What will former President Obama do with the data after he has finished with using it? Participation in election cycles in America have not only become more costly but have generated assets in the form of the data that doesn’t have a trivial value to it.


Though the presence of this information cannot be magicked away it is possible to enact privacy rules and practices that will permit voters to share only data they want for only the period they want to. A permission based approach where the data is stored by the user and only accessed by those permitted would partially solve the problem of explicit data. Data that is nowadays is consciously shared but access to which cannot be meaningfully revoked subsequently. For implicit data – data about voters harvested by cookies placed by campaign websites can be limited by those who wish to limit it through use of technologies that permit pseudonymous searches. Sincerely, and in a way that Houdini would surely have appreciated, though the voter disappears the information about them does not. The presence of this information in election cycles going forward.

-- TomGlaisyer - Dec 10 2008

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r2 - 10 Dec 2008 - 20:26:08 - TomGlaisyer
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