What is a voter file?
Voter files have caused me confusion since I first heard about them while reading about what led up to all of the confusion surrounding the election in which Donald Trump prevailed and became president for one term. A voter file seems confusing to me because I thought that we had a secret ballot system where our votes were not revealed to others but it seems that politicians and political machines have gotten around this secret ballot system and are now able to figure out how I vote without ever having to talk to me personally about it. One of the major forces at work that allow the unmasking of my vote is statistics. Statistics allow a candidate to divide up the population demographically and to then survey those slices of the population in a sort of stratified sampling approach. These slices then give a good picture of how I vote based on my party affiliation, my location or some other demographic through which groups are sliced and diced to understand how to approach me better as a voter in order to gain influence over me or to know concretely where I stand. Voter files challenge the very notion of secret ballot.
What is a voter file? A voter file is actually something that is a creation of companies in order to be able to target potential voters better. These voter files consist of information that is publicly available to anyone who has the ability to do the collecting. There are many parts of the voting process that are open to the public but it seems kind of contradictory that this is the case when we have the concept of the secret ballot so deeply ingrained in our culture. A voter file is enriched with data on the people in the specific demographic groups, with information that can be bought from data brokers, with information from credit reporting agencies, with information collected through surveys and with information developed through predictive models developed as a product of our extreme advancement with ever faster and faster and smaller and smaller computer technology. A voter file is public information combined with information that takes a lot of effort to pull together to create a picture of the voting class. The ballot might no longer be secret. How you voted might just not be confirmable.
Are voter files compatible with democracy? Unfortunately, at the founding of the country, the founders were not extreme enough or trustworthy enough to create a direct democracy as that which exists in Switzerland. They wanted to do away with the concept of a king that had the right to make all the rules for the people but they did not absolutely trust the masses either. They decided to take a hybrid approach. They decided to create a form of government which allows voters to vote for representatives who then go on to Washington to vote in ways that favor the desires of their constituents. Voter files allow potential representatives to get a better picture of who they will be serving. But on the other hand, voter files can also be abused to manipulate constituents to believe things that are not true. This issue on January 6th, 2021 is an example of the politicians knowing them better than they know themselves and using this information to manipulate people to attempt to overthrow an election. Voter files are compatible with democracy but it might be time to start looking at some limits. The ballot is not really secret if they can use what they know about you to convince you to act in ways that are unlawful.
The biggest benefit of new computer technology in connection with voter files is that you are able to target voters better. You can either know that they will be voting for you or you can contemplate ways to convince them to vote for you or convince them to not vote at all if they will vote against you. In the case of the previous election, many voters were convinced not to vote based on information that pollsters had on specific demographic groups. This really calls into the question the real secrecy of the secret ballot. Do I need to know how you voted if I already know how you will have voted? The case with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook took the whole idea of enriching publicly available voter information to the next level. Cambridge Analytica used a trick on Facebook to connect to real people and to get real information directly from Facebook about voters. They used a tool that Facebook made available to academic researchers to get information directly about the users. With the information from the users combined with demographic surveys conducted via platforms like the Mechanical Turk from Amazon, Cambridge Analytica was able to directly target voters based on information, other than public voter rolls, that it knew to be true. The secret ballot has no value if they know who you are, who your friends are and how you feel about many subjects.
Voter files are a product of public of private information being combined to come up with the most accurate picture of what the electorate is like. In order to understand people better and to know which issues are important to them, private companies collect information from credit reporting agencies, via surveys that help to determine psychographic and demographic profiles of people and any other source possible to help them to get to know the individual groups better. Although the process is still compatible with democracy, the concept of the secret ballot is still held sacred by most Americans. The secret ballot is the idea that no one knows how I have voted. My guess is that that keeps others from trying to directly influence one another when it comes to voting. It also makes it impossible for one to suffer repercussion for how one has voted. But they way that voter files are created and maintained with powerful computers is quickly eroding the feeling that no one knows how you voted. It seems that there are repercussions for how people think you most likely have voted. This is dangerous and this might be the time to call for reform in this area of voter file creation.