Should Elections BC give parties data on voter turnout?

I spoke today on BC Almanac about an interesting story reported by the CBC. You can hear the podcast here.

The BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham objects to a proposed change to the BC Election Act that would provide political parties information about whether people have voted. Her concern is that this information would allow parties to target voters for fundraising and profiling. In political campaigns this is called “micro-targeting.”

In a world of big data, political parties can combine demographic and consumer information with their own internal databases on voters to make powerful inferences about who is likely to vote for their candidates. With this new information they will have an additional tool that will help them to understand turnout among supporters and opponents.

According to BC’s Chief Electoral Officer, political parties want this information: “When consulted on
 this issue, all political
 party representatives
 on the Election Advisory Committee requested that the Election Act also be amended to require the Chief Electoral Officer to provide individual voter participation information 
to political parties after
 an election.” Elections BC does not take a position on the issue, but obviously the government favours it.

Denham does not disagree with sharing information on voters that would help parties to get out the vote. Right now, campaigners are given bingo cards that allow them to track who has voted and who has not, both during advance polling and on election day. Her fear is that the release of individual-level information on turnout after the election could be used “for creating voter profiles, targeting voters, fundraising, sharing data across systems for secondary purposes, collecting non-consensual information, inappropriate communication from parties, and other intrusive uses.”

I was asked to speak to the issue of voter turnout. I think a number of issues need to be disentangled.

First, there is evidence that campaigning does increase turnout. A huge part of election campaigning in Canada is identification of voters and getting out the vote on election day. The more information parties have, the easier it is for them to target their efforts where it will be most effective.

Second, the availability of advanced analytics enables campaigners to be extremely focused in their messages. They can concentrate not just on key ridings but on key demographic groups and even individuals. Whereas in the past we spoke of swing ridings and swing voters in the plural, now the focus is on the swing voter as an individual.

Third, the growing importance of social media means that messages can be targeted at specific individuals or groups, by-passing the filter of the mass media. This raises troubling issues about fact-checking and the use of deceptive communications that fly below the radar.

It is not hard to see how they trends can also have a dark side. If campaigns can increase turnout, they can also be used to suppress turnout. A good example of that is the targeting of Jewish Liberal voters in the last election by vexatious phone calls late on Saturday nights intended to anger them against the Liberal Party. The callers claimed to be from the Liberal Party. Such calls required access to a database that could target the right individuals.

Similarly, the use of deceptive robocalls was a wake-up call to Canadians about the need for more vigorous monitoring and oversight of the behavior of candidates during elections.

By their own admission, parties are having a hard time recruiting the volunteers necessary to keep track of who has voted. This speaks to the way in which parties have become PR machines for candidates, rather than organizations with deep roots in civil society. The discussion of the use of data should be place in this larger context. Increasingly, voters do not trust politicians and parties .

I defer to the Privacy Commissioner on the best way to regulate the use of information in election campaigns. It seems inevitable that our politics is going to be transformed by the mining of data. Perhaps what we need is some sort of enforceable commitment on the part of the parties to uphold standards of good conduct during elections. If they are to be given access to this sort of information, a commitment to honesty and fair play seems like a reasonable quid pro quo.

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