if you’ve voted, it’s been noted

(Washington) In Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters, Eitan Hersh shows that candidates and campaigns obtain their knowledge of us, the citizenry, by analyzing voter files. They don’t know the truth about us; they know what the voter files say about us.

That means that getting on the voting rolls is a source of power. Once you’re on, the political class becomes interested in you. They measure and model and predict your preferences and behaviors. Your vote may not make a marginal difference in the electoral outcome. After all, most elections are lopsided victories. But even if you are part of a large majority or a small minority, the candidates will pay attention to you if you’re in the voter files, and they won’t even see you if you aren’t.

This is an argument for registering and voting that may not be easy to convey, but it has the advantage of being right.

Don’t campaigns learn what the whole population thinks from polls? The answer is: sometimes. Polls are mainly conducted for high profile races. It’s a pop-culture myth (see “The Good Wife”) that ordinary candidates do any significant polling. Besides, we are in the midst of a data revolution in which companies, governments, and politicians are shifting away from random samples to datasets that track all of the relevant behavior–every purchase on Amazon, every Web search, or every vote. These datasets are far more powerful than surveys for predicting and influencing people. In particular, voting files are powerful because: (1) public policy requires the collection of more data on voters than is strictly necessary to run an election, (2) voter files can be merged with commercial records, and (3) analysis of such data is becoming both more sophisticated and more user-friendly. (I take all of this from Hersh.)

Don’t campaigns learn about the public by talking to people? They used to rely on skillful, experienced neighborhood-level volunteers to provide information about the electorate. That whole infrastructure has been hollowed out by money and technology. Of course, there are still volunteers. But they come forward to work on particular campaigns. Few have deep and accumulated knowledge of local voters. The best way to harvest what they learn during a campaign is to require them to upload their observations about specific citizens to the voter files. Meanwhile, the candidates spend their time talking to donors. The voter file is how the campaign learns who you are–which means that you should make sure you’re on it by voting.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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