The app Vote With Me connects to your phone’s contact list and matches names and phone numbers with state voter rolls — telling you which party your friends are registered to and which of the last elections they actually voted in. The idea is that you can use this information to encourage friends to go vote, and will prewrite a text message to them through the app.
Great, right? Except that upon deeper reflection, I found this creepy and believe it’s a strange invasion of my and my friends’ privacy. Just because the voter records of our friends (or really, anyone on our phones, which is a lot of random people!) are a matter of public record doesn’t mean they expect other people to look for them. Even weirder is getting a text from someone telling you that they saw you didn’t vote in the last election!
Other get out the vote campaigns this year have raised eyebrows — some are even using fake news to get people to click on links that redirect to voter registration sites.
Mikey Dickerson, executive director of The New Data Project, the non-profit group that made Vote With Me, says that he knows his app might seem a little, well, creepy to some people, but he’s ok with that. “Establishing the social norm of voting is important enough that a little bit of discomfort is warranted,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It feels new because it hasn’t been easy to have [voter records] publicly viewed before, but we think that’s for the public good.”
Voter rolls are technically a matter of public record, but it’s not easy to look up your friends’ information. There simply isn’t a single free website where you can enter a name and get a voter record. There's voterrecords.com, but it only covers 14 states plus D.C. On certain official state websites, you can look up registrations, but only if you know extra information like a person's actual full name and, say, their zip code or birth date. And all of these just say if you’re registered or not, not which years you voted. (Who you voted for is, of course, always secret and not part of any of this information.)
Vote With Me gets its info by paying for a licensed set of records from a commercial entity that provides this as a service to campaigns or other groups. In a Medium post, the group that made Vote With Me called the New Data Project describes how they obtained the voter data: “Campaigns have used these records for decades, and sometimes have taken steps to prevent you from realizing it. We feel that as long as this data exists, regular people not on a political payroll should be able to see and use it, too.”
There’s tons of information about us that is technically public, but that feels invasive to look up about someone or to find out that someone looked up about you. You don’t tell your friend you went back to their oldest Facebook photos, found their old boyfriend, and then looked up his new girlfriend and noticed that she has great hair. You can do that, but you shouldn’t. You can look up your Tinder date’s address in public records and just show up at their place, but they’ll probably call the cops!
In theory, public voter records are a standard-issue, value-neutral piece of civic life. But as I scrolled through my contacts, I found this wasn’t the case. I sat with a friend who told me about the app, and as we gawked at our phones, comparing surprises we found, it felt a lot like we were lurking on something forbidden and secret.
(There was a friend who is very vocal about his political opinions on Facebook who I discovered didn’t vote in 2016. 🤔🤔🤔🤔)
She found friends who she assumed were registered with one party were actually registered to another. We snarkily rolled our eyes at mutual friends who we discovered rarely voted. She also discovered that an acquaintance who is a prominent woman in feminist and political circles had skipped out on the 2016 general election after voting in the primary.
(Dickerson told me the data isn’t perfect. I noticed it said I didn’t vote a year I know that I did; Dickerson said it’s possible the state lost my vote, but it’s more likely the voter data, which the app's makers get from a commercial supplier, contains some errors.)
Getting out the vote and encouraging your friends to participate is a noble idea. Voting’s great! Go vote! And it’s certainly true that campaigns use our voter records to contact us — anyone who’s gotten a mailer or call from a candidate knows this. But it’s 2018 and we’re all put on edge by the fact that information and data about us is floating around (remember Cambridge Analytica? That feels, like, 8,000 years ago) and we don’t realize the extent of it.
I dunno, man. This app feels weird. But still, go vote.