What business is it of yours whether I voted?

For all the appropriate chatter about intrusions into privacy, for all the legitimate scandals being derailed by school districts citing privacy and personnel law, a story today stands out: Why is it anyone’s business whether you voted?

The Star Tribune reports that a Republican candidate for Senate doesn’t vote in the state’s primary elections. Neither do most Minnesotans, but these sorts of factoids seem to suggest that someone is less of an American for not voting. That’s debatable. We have a right to vote, but we have no legal obligation to do so and, arguably, not voting for the only options you have can be considered a vote, too. And quite often, there are no choices for the important races.

Says the Strib…

A check of state records shows that McFadden’s GOP opponents — state Sen. Julianne Ortman, Rep. Jim Abeler and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg — are all faithful primary and general election voters. Franken, too, has been steady since he registered to vote in Minnesota in 2006, voting in every general and primary election since then, according to voter records.

The Minnesota GOP primary hasn’t really been heavily contested — and thus in many voters’ minds, important — since 1936. Until this year.

Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and author of the Smart Politics blog, said the margins in primary elections going back to the 1930s were complete blowouts and swung upward of 60 points. This wasn’t for lack of competition. In all but two of those cycles, there were always at least a couple of names on the ballot. It’s just that the mainstream, heavily favored candidate always handily beat out the one or two fringe candidates, said Ostermeier, a student of Minnesota political history.

Even so, why should anyone be able to track what I — or you — are doing anytime, especially in a state that has so many data privacy laws?

The mere fact of being documented as voting provides an avenue for determining other information about you — your political affiliation being the most obvious.

  • MrE85

    “…but the news is intended to suggest that he’s less of an American for not voting.”
    I humbly suggest that such speculation on the “intent” of a news story is a tricky thing. You have heard the same from conservatives who frequently see “hidden agendas” in MPR and NPR reporting. Why stumble into the same trap? Why not give Allison Sherry a call and ask her what she intended to say about McFadden with this story?
    That point aside, I agree with you on the voting tracking thing. A person’s personal voting record should be private. It has no place in the news, even for a candidate for the Senate.

  • Kassie

    The political parties have large databases with all registered voters in them. They have everyone marked as to if they are Democrats, Republicans, unknown and independent and how strongly. It isn’t they might find out your political persuasion, it is that they probably already know.

    • That would explain why my household gets Al Franken AND Michelle Bachmann fundraising letters.

      They’re not so smart… AND… it shows the inaccuracies of making my voting information available.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      Those databases are not reliably accurate.

      • MrE85

        Maybe that’s why I get the American Spectator mailings. 😉

        • In any data mining, the process involves FRAGMENTS of information that we scatter around. Thats what this is: it’s a fragment of information. I don’t want that fragment of information around. I don’t want people asking me about whom I voted for, whether I voted, when I voted or even where I voted.

          It’s none of your business and, even worse, there’s no compelling explanation for why it is.

          • MrE85

            I agree. If some one gets elected to Congress, their votes on the floor or in committee (usually) are a matter of public record. That’s a good thing.
            How they voted in the ballot box? None of our business.

  • Allan Lofthus

    While I agree that a private citizen’s voting record should be private, I do think that a candidate’s record is informative for some voters.

    If a candidate claims to have been involved in the community, but never voted in an election, wouldn’t that send a message?

    And if a candidate, such as McFadden, who has been content to let political parties pick his candidate for 20 years suddenly decides that primaries are important, doesn’t that send a message, too?

    • I would submit that what we think we know as a result of an intrusion into our voting records doesn’t really tell us much, especially since he voted in the general elections.

      Basically, if I don’t go to vote in a primary between a candidate with a chance, and an election with Ole Savior or Dick Franson, what do you really know?

      But as a private individual, I object to not being able to control what you know about me. It’s up to me, for example, to reveal what political party I follow. But by revealing that I voted in a primary in which there was only one party with contests, that is revealed for me. I don’t believe that’s right.

  • Chris

    Every time I read a story like this I wonder what the process is to check your own voting record. Anyone know? It just makes me vaguely curious about my record.
    Your voting record, in my opinion, is your business not mine – regardless of career choice.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I can’t for the life of me understand why this information is publicly accessible.

    • kcmarshall

      I suspect this data is public for transparency purposes. Someone investigating voter fraud would want to know who is recorded as showing up at their polling place.

      I bet this is a case where data that was once public but not easily available is now much more accessible due to advances in technology.

      • One can easily investigate vote fraud and know who showed up at the polling place. But that doesn’t need to be public information in order to accomplish that.

        My theory: Politicians benefit from knowing who voted and using the data in a data mining attempt to figure out who they voted for. That information is valuable for their election efforts. Politicians make the laws. Therefore, the law makes the data accessible.

        Meanwhile, we’re not allowed to know why a school system didn’t act against an alleged pervert janitor because the public employees are shielded thanks to data privacy laws. We’re not allowed to know why Woodbury fired its school superintendent because they’re shielded from data privacy laws. We’re not allowed to know why MSU fired a football coach who took pictures of his own children because they’re shielded by data privacy laws.

        A little consistency is in order here.

        • kcmarshall

          I don’t doubt you’re right that politicians have an interest in keeping this data available for campaigns. I’m also willing to bet that it has been open long before ‘data mining’ was a thing.

          I think a story about data privacy laws (and inconsistencies in them) would be great. Have you ever talked to Don Gemberling? I think he’s retired now but that was the work he did for years at the State.

  • kcmarshall

    I’ve missed as many primaries as I have voted in. That doesn’t cause me much guilt.

    That said, I do think that one indication of a candidate’s commitment to the electoral process is his/her voting record. If you suddenly show up as a candidate after years of ignoring the election booth, I think it is fair to ask why. Maybe you have an entirely reasonable answer; maybe you just decided you could show up and expect immediate respect from voters. Some of those voters will care about long-term commitment.

    To be fair, don’t know if McFadden meets the standard I set above. Maybe he has only missed the ‘Ole Savior’ primaries.

    • Nothing prevents ANYONE from asking a candidate about a voting record whether the rest of us have to have our private data exposed or not.

  • Derek Burrows Reise

    The notion of a private ballot was not in place at the time of our Constitution. Since then, we have put it in place to prevent electoral abuse and voter intimidation. But keeping voter turnout private has no similar need. Voting is a public act for which the only argument against openness is vague calls of “privacy.” And whether someone votes or not is highly relevant in the case of someone who is asking people to vote for him or her and who’s job it will be to vote on behalf of voters.

    • Yes, this citation of a “vague call of privacy” is the same baffling argument that has been used as our personal data is mined for the benefit of other parties. It’s not of your business.

      It wasn’t in place at the time of our Constitution? Huh. Neither was the notion that a black man was a full man in the eyes of our government. So that really holds no sway with me in 2014.

      That the candidate in question didn’t vote in a primary tells you nothing — nothing — about his policies or how he will vote (or not vote) on behalf of others.

      The fact that nobody can make a compelling argument WHY you have a right to know what I did on a day in September or November betrays the effort to hide the fact that there isn’t one.

      I suspect if you check the voting records of our most corrupt politicians, you’ll find they vote in elections too.

      • Allan Lofthus

        I agree that whether or not a candidate votes in a primary tells you nothing about his policies. I would argue, however, that it does tell you something about his civic engagement. I have a hard time believing a candidate who suddenly feels a “call to service” and decides to jump into a political contest, yet hasn’t bothered to vote in the past, is being entirely honest.

        If you are worried about being profiled by your voting record then exercise your franchise in every election. There is no way to profile someone, based on voting record, if they vote 100% of the time.

        • That’s not true, as I described above. If you vote in a primary in which only one party has primary races, you’ve just revealed your political party. Unless, of course, you’re one of those jerks who votes in other party primaries to select the weakest candidate for the general election, which I wouldn’t classify as someone more positively civic engaged than someone who sat it out.

          The other thing is: Minnesotans ARE engaged by virtue of their best-in-the-nation turnout for GENERAL elections. For primary elections? Not so much. Most of us don’t vote in the primaries. But that fact doesn’t tell us anything about our civic engagement as evidenced by November. If anything, it tells us the choices in the primary aren’t much to write home about.

          Political parties have done such a great job of purging themselves of candidates who don’t toe the party line, that we don’t really have the choices we like to think we have.

          • Allan Lofthus

            “If you vote in a primary in which
            only one party has primary races, you’ve just revealed your political
            party.”

            I’m curious which elections you are talking about. In the past 10 years, I can only think of one election year primary that didn’t have a contested state-wide race in both major parties (2004). And that was only because no state-wide races were up for election in 2004.

            What makes you think that the mere act of voting, especially if you do it in every election, reveals your party affiliation? My in-laws have voted religiously in every election since the ’80s, but for different parties. I suspect they’ve been nullifying each others vote in the general election for at least as long.

  • David
    • Allan Lofthus

      Informative link, David. I find it interesting that the data can only be requested by someone who is currently registered to vote in Minnesota.

  • John Peschken

    “We have a right to vote, but we have no legal obligation to do so”
    Back in grade school, I was taught that voting was not a right, but a responsibility. It was a way to support democracy. So, not a right, but a way you earned your rights. I still think that’s a more satisfying way of looking at it. However, it’s no one else’s business whether you voted.

    • Christin

      “Back in grade school, I was taught that voting was not a right, but a responsibility. It was a way to support democracy.”
      I was taught this as well, and believed it for many years. Now, it feels a little rose colored glasses & West Wing pretend to me. I do not necessarily believe that my vote supports democracy. As a result, when someone running for office chose to obtain from voting in the past, I will not judge them on that choice alone. Even in local school board elections, the impact of powerful lobbying groups, the wealthy, and party insiders seem to dictate my options in a general election more than my primary vote does. It is hard to beleive that any politician can represent us well if they must kowtow to these groups, and I question the integrity of the entire process. That said, I continue to stay engaged, particularly on a grassroots level, because the only way to make change is to work for it. I want to know what the person running for office does day to day that backs up thier talking points more than whether they missed a primary.

      • David

        In a way, not casting a ballot is still voting.

  • MrE85

    We Election Judges are required to reveal our party preferences (although not our voting record). Here’s the language from the form, which I just got today:

    “State law requires that no more than one-half of the election judges in a precinct can be members of the same major political party. All election judges must declare a major political party affiliation. Once assigned to a polling location, however, when working at the polling place, election judges must remain non-partisan.”
    As result of this (and other staffing needs) I always work in some precinct other than my own. Because I’m there all day (literally), I have to vote via absentee ballot.

    • tboom

      I attempted to serve as an election judge but walked away when I realized I was required to provide a party preference.

      • MrE85

        I understand the idea behind asking. When you serve as an Election Judge and see all the safeguards in place, you become much less concerned about any fraud at the polls. At least I did.