Coming soon to a battleground state near you: White House campaigns combining census reports with Instagram and Twitter posts to target teenagers who aren’t yet 18 but will be by Election Day 2016. It’s an aggressive strategy with an obvious reward. More than eight million people will become legal adults eligible to vote for the first time by the next general election. Campaigns are eager to find ways to get through to these 16- and 17-year-olds who are still minors and, in most cases, more likely to be concerned with making it to class on time than who should be elected president. “It’s got to be the right candidate with the right message to excite and motivate that age demographic, with so many distractions in their life, to register, and then turn out,” said Vincent Harris, digital director for Rand Paul’s political operation.
Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans are desperate for any edge at the polls, and they say they’ll be employing 21st-century data mining techniques in search of supporters from this ripe demographic that has little or no track record in politics. That means scouring local high school directories from Iowa to Florida, matching up data from public voter rolls with parents’ voting histories, and picking through whatever scant bits of consumer information are also available to help paint a sharper picture of the electorate.
Privacy activists and policymakers express deep qualms about letting political campaigns have free rein to target future voters before they’ve become legal adults. They say teenagers lack the proper context and experience to make sense of so many brass-knuckle attack ads on complicated issues ranging from the federal deficit to terrorism. Civic-minded efforts to encourage youth turnout can come close to crossing the line too, including a viral Rock the Vote video on which rapper Lil Jon said his reason for casting a ballot in 2014 was to legalize marijuana, and a Koch Brothers-affiliated Generation Opportunity commercial that used a particularly scary Uncle Sam mask to urge young women to opt out of Obamacare. Making data on young voters publicly available also opens them up not just to messages from Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, but from anyone else who wants to contact kids online.