“Scary” Database or Same Old, Same Old?

One thing you can count on the media, and many people in general, is a quick, knee-jerk reaction to buzzwords, that, when strung together in a certain order, are designed to shock, stun, and otherwise startle the reader. Recent postings at Slashdot.org and CNN.com regarding the database activities of the two major parties in the United States fit this mold rather well.
Much ado is made of the fact that both parties are developing in-house nefarious sounding “voter files,” made up of information about registered voters across the US…including YOU! Evoking scary imagery of Big Brother, and other privacy concerns, the alarm is sounded like a 21st Century Paul Revere: “The politicians are coming! The politicians are coming”. The press gets to tsk-tsk once again, and people can get Really Mad at the bastards responsible for this horrible criminal syndicate disguised as political activism.
Party spokesmen brag with buzzwords too. Take for example Democratic chairman Terry Mc Auliffe in the CNN report: “We can tell you exactly which house on which street we need to get out the vote, because we know that the issues they are concerned about are Democratic issues,” party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said. “And we know what to say, and we know what not to say.”
Sounds impressive. Or scary. Even kinda reminds me a bit of the song Electric Eye by Judas Priest, even. Either way, the reader is left with the idea that somehow this massive conspiracy is out to get them, and we’re just one step away from voter ID chips implanted in our backsides, and assorted RNC and DNC hacks piloting space-based orbital laser canons to knock off swing voters in Florida.
Now for the patented Schädelmann.com Reality Check ™: This is one of those stories that “sounds” a lot worse than it “is.” Trust me when I say that of all the things to worry about, this ranks rather low on any rational scale of Threats To The Republic.
Why? Very simple – taking public voter registration rolls, all public record and all which can be purchased for a small fee from any voter registrar in the U.S., and matching it up with other public records, such as the tax rolls, car registration information, or other publicly available demographic information has been done by technologically savvy political professionals for over 30 years.
Yes, you read that right. This is nothing new, no 21st Century dotcom wizardry to be had here, but rather a very old (by tech standards) business. Political pioneers such as Richard Viguerie for the GOP and Clint Reilly for the Democrats saw the usefulness of targeting voter communications more efficiently, and used new computer technology in the 70s and 80s to build some of the first lists of registered voters, coupled with demographic information, to better reach people for fundraising and voter contact.
Their work and the work of others went on for years, in the full view of the public and press eyes, and yet we haven’t seen the kind of scary pronouncements we hear today. More to the point, it’s produced better campaigns, with people getting more relevant information transmitted to them about the issues they’re concerned about in the course of a local, state, or national campaign.
I have been working in professional political consulting for over ten years, and I can tell you that none of these lists are generated by anything not already available to the public for free, or for a fee. I can walk into Political Data in Burbank, CA or Labels and Lists in Bellevue, WA with a check in hand and walk out with a list of registered voters, broken down by party, gender, voting history, or whatever I want, and it’s all perfectly legal. It’s also not a threat to anyone on the list either.
It’s also going to be a heck of a lot more accurate than anything a political party can cook up and brag about on CNN. Any political consultant will tell you that 9 times out of 10, when a political party tries to manage their voter file in-house, it usually ends up being pockmarked full of holes as the ability to administer such a list sways with the political winds.
There have been some notable exceptions in some states, but from my experience, when I hear big pronouncements by national political party spokespeople that somehow they’ve got some silver bullet “list” they’ve been spending money to build, I feel more threatened by being forced to use it than by being on it.
Many may feel a bit strange that public data can be aggregated and re-used by for-profit companies. It’s a legitimate concern, but it goes to a larger issue that “public” records and “public” disclosure bring up: a government agency may be forced by law to provide information to the public – but is not necessarily obligated to provide it in a form that is of much use to a member of said public.
If you are a candidate for office, you have the right to speak to the people who vote in said election. If you collect the data from the registrar, chances are it’s got gaps, mistakes, or hasn’t been updated in a while. Thus you, as a candidate, find that while the “public” information is “available,” it’s usefulness to you, your opponents, or anyone else is limited. Your ability to talk to the people who vote in your election is curtailed by the often antiquated systems many areas keep their voter files in.
So, if you can go to a vendor who’s not only going to give your efforts the information you need, but also be obligated contractually to correct it with publicly available corroborating data, it’s no more of an imposition on the privacy of said public data than if you were to use a phone book from a private telephone company to look up the phone numbers of voters in my district. Technology changes the speed and accuracy of such aggregation, but the act itself is no different.
It’s not the most comfortable feeling in the world, I agree, but the fact is the worst thing that will happen is that you’ll get a pile of dead trees emblazoned with [Your candidate here] and their platitudes on an 11 x 17 flyer, you’re not going to have the KGB or Gestapo taking you to a re-education camp.
I think.
© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at www.schadelmann.com

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