Using public data to shame people into voting

There are certain things that should be none of your business and who you vote for or what your political ideology is should be one of those things.

But political parties crave that data and since politicians write the laws, there’s little hope for keeping your business private.

Minnesota is among the states now where voters don’t register by party, but that’s likely to change for the presidential primary in 2020. MPR’s Brian Bakst reported a week ago that voters who want to cast a ballot in the presidential primary would have to sign a polling place roster attesting that “I am in general agreement with the principles of the party for whose candidate I intend to vote, and I understand that my choice of a party’s ballot will be public information.”

Making the data public gives politicians and parties easy access to names and addresses of possible financial benefactors. Good for them; maybe not so good for you.

We need look no further than Pennsylvania, where a shaming campaign is underway to try to get people to vote in a primary election being held today.

Lancaster Online reports that a group calling itself the Pennsylvania State Voter Program is sending letters to people telling them whether their neighbors voted in the most three recent elections, with clear threat to add the recipient to the list if he/she doesn’t vote.

“What if your friends, your neighbors, and your community knew whether you voted?” the letter starts.

“Why do so many people fail to vote?” the letter continues. “We’ve been talking about the problem for years, but it only seems to get worse. This year, we’re taking a new approach. We’re sending this mailing to you, your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues at work, and your community members to publicize who does and does not vote.”

The letter then shows a chart starting with the targeted voter and continuing with nine of his or her neighbors. It reveals the voter’s address and whether he or she voted in the 2016 primary and the 2016 and 2014 general elections.

A final column with the May 15, 2018 date has a question mark.

The information — not including which candidates the voters chose — is public record, perhaps to the surprise of many voters.

Available from the Pennsylvania Department of State for $20, anyone can purchase the registry that includes each voter’s address, birth date, voter registration date, party affiliation and history of voting.

Candidates and political parties frequently use the information to target their voter outreach efforts.

But that doesn’t mean voters want their neighbors and colleagues to know when they go to the polls.

Yeah, no kidding. No ethical journalist, for example, would ever vote in a primary if it means their political leanings as citizens are revealed.

“It’s very unusual to try to embarrass people into voting,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “Not that they shouldn’t be encouraged to vote. But there’s a difference in mailings encouraging people to vote and efforts to embarrass people into voting by sharing that information with their neighbors.”

It’s not much of a leap to first shame a citizen for exercising a right not to vote to shaming someone for having a political view, all easily done with public data.

But it’s none of your business.