The right to an anonymous vote is a cornerstone of the U.S. democratic process. Yet from the time until you walk into the voting booth until long, long after you cast your ballot, your personal information is a highly sought-after commodity. Often your name, contact details, and political leanings are frighteningly easy for political campaigns to access, collect, share, trade, and sell. First, a caveat. As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, we are prohibited from electioneering, i.e., endorsing or opposing any particular candidate. So while we’ll offer some illustrative examples, none of what follows is intended to single out any particular candidate—candidates and independent campaign committees across the political spectrum are collecting information about you. This post is not intended to influence your vote, but rather to inform you as a citizen about the privacy implications of your participation in the democratic process. Data collection is an entrenched part of how modern political campaigns work, and that should concern you regardless of your political affiliation.
There’s a theory that the more candidates reach potential voters, the better informed and engaged the voting public might become. That’s a double-edge sword: candidates aren’t just gathering information on their potential supporters; they are also investigating their opponents’ supporters.
We should also emphasize that this isn’t just about presidential elections. Even if the presidential field is narrowing, 469 Congressional seats are up for election, plus thousands more on the state and local levels. All of those candidates want your information too.
Many people think voter records are completely private. In reality, most states allow campaigns to obtain voter lists, including every registered voter, along with their addresses, party registration and voting history (whether they voted in an election or not, but not how they voted). In Minnesota, you can buy this information from the Secretary of State on CD-ROM for $46, while in Iowa, it can cost nearly $2,000. This is one of the key ways that campaigns are able to gather information on citizens and to determine whether someone is a “likely” voter or not.