Did You Vote? Now Your Friends May Know (and Nag You)
Posted November 4, 2018 3:12 p.m. EST
My dentist, a registered Republican, did not vote in the last midterm elections, in 2014.
But the owner of my local bookstore, a registered Democrat, did vote then. So did my accountant, who is not registered with either party.
I know these details not because the dentist, the bookseller and the accountant volunteered to share their voting histories with me. I found out from VoteWithMe and OutVote, two new political apps that are trying to use peer pressure to get people to vote on Tuesday.
The apps are to elections what Zillow is to real estate — services that pull public information from government records, repackage it for consumer viewing and make it available at the touch of a smartphone button. But instead of giving you a peek at house prices, VoteWithMe and OutVote let you snoop on which of your friends voted in past elections and their party affiliations — and then prod them to go to the polls by sending them scripted messages like “You gonna vote?”
“I don’t want this to come off like we’re shaming our friends into voting,” said Naseem Makiya, chief executive of OutVote, a startup in Boston. But, he said, “I think a lot of people might vote just because they’re frankly worried that their friends will find out if they didn’t.”
Whom Americans vote for is private. But other information in their state voter files is public information; depending on the state, it can include details like their name, address, phone number and party affiliation and when they voted. The apps try to match the people in your smartphone’s contacts to their voter files, then display some of those details.
The data’s increasing availability may surprise people receiving messages nudging them to vote — or even trouble them, by exposing personal politics they might have preferred to keep to themselves. Political campaigns have for years purchased voter files from states or bought national voter databases from data brokers, but the information has otherwise had little public exposure outside of campaign use. Now any app user can easily harness such data to make inferences about, and try to influence, their contacts’ voting behavior.
“You want to use that gentle social pressure around voting,” said Amanda Coulombe, general manager of organizing at NGP VAN, a campaign technology company for Democrats, “but really making sure you are balancing that with not freaking people out.”
The apps could also have unintended consequences, said Ira Rubinstein, a senior fellow at the Information Law Institute at New York University School of Law who studies voter privacy.
For one thing, he said, people could use the apps to create contact lists of acquaintances, strangers or public figures they don’t like and maliciously publicize their voting histories. As a hypothetical example, he said, religious leaders might be outed for registering with a political party whose platform runs counter to their church’s doctrine.
“I don’t think there are any particular safeguards to prevent people from just assembling a contact list for more malicious purposes, acquiring this information and using it to harass or coerce people,” Rubinstein said.
The apps’ developers say they are simply democratizing access to these public records.
The apps are free for consumers to use. But OutVote, which received seed funding last summer from Y Combinator, a well-known startup accelerator, also works with political candidates and groups that pay fees to use the app as part of their campaigns. VoteWithMe was developed by the New Data Project, a nonprofit founded by Obama administration appointees.
Anyone can use the apps, but executives say they hope to improve voter turnout particularly among young Democrats. The VoteWithMe app, for instance, is preset to show likely Democrats among a user’s contacts. Users must change the app’s settings to see the voting histories of all their contacts. Some Republican political apps also enable consumers to send scripted messages, but do not show their contacts’ voting history.
Political science research has shown that people turn out to vote in higher numbers when they think their family and neighbors are observing their civic behavior. The VoteWithMe and OutVote apps simply automate that surveillance and social pressure.
“The message is going to be coming from someone that not only knows who you are but knows that you didn’t vote last time,” said Mikey Dickerson, executive director of the New Data Project, who served as chief of the U.S. Digital Service under President Barack Obama. “We are trying to engineer a situation where there is a social expectation that they do vote.” Lily Jampol, a diversity and inclusion consultant in San Francisco, downloaded the VoteWithMe app last Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, she said, she had sent dozens of text messages to people in her contacts.
“I’ve been optimizing, trying to wrangle for people who I think will be most affected,” said Jampol, a behavioral scientist.
The apps also distinguish engaged voters from wayward ones.
If someone in your contacts list has a perfect voting record, OutVote identifies him or her as a “super voter” and displays an emoji of a smiley face with red hearts for eyes next to the name. For those “woke friends who vote,” it suggests sending a message saying: “I know you’re gonna vote on November 6 DUH, but make sure to remind your friends too!”
Both apps display election years that people have skipped with a big red slash next to their names. OutVote marks voters who missed elections with a sad-faced emoji dripping a tear.
To test the apps, reporters at The New York Times created a mock contact list of politicians and celebrities with their names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and workplaces and other data about them. The results suggest how easy it can be to use the information to pry into someone’s personal life.
Among other things, the apps indicated that Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who recently led hearings on consumer privacy, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., each faithfully voted in every general, primary and municipal election dating back to 2004.
They also reported that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat running for the House, did not vote in the last midterm elections in 2014. Nor did Alyssa Milano, an actress and activist who recently posted a video on Twitter urging her followers to vote.
A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez said she was purged from the New York voter rolls in 2016 and he was looking into 2014. Milano said, in a message sent via her publicist, that she was dealing at the time with severe postpartum depression after the premature birth of her daughter.
By inspecting data that the apps harvested from our contacts, The Times also found that they took more personal data than required to match voters — such as the workplace and email address of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
After queries from The Times, VoteWithMe and OutVote each said they had eliminated some types of data that their apps were harvesting. In subsequent testing last week, The Times found that VoteWithMe no longer collected email addresses, street names and numbers, or company names. But OutVote continued to do so. Makiya of OutVote said the app had stopped collecting social profile data but needed the email addresses to match voter files. For the midterm elections, OutVote is also working with Vote.org, a nonprofit that tries to increase voter participation, on a nonpartisan app.
That app allows users to send messages asking contacts to vote — without displaying those contacts’ voting histories. It also collects data on users’ contacts and matches them to voter files to help Vote.org track whether people who received messages were more likely to vote than people who did not.
Debra Cleaver, chief executive of Vote.org, said the app was part of an experiment to determine the efficacy of such digital social-pressure tools. It might turn out, she said, that it takes messages from several friends to get someone to vote.
“No one really knows whether peer-to-peer technology has been successful this year,” Cleaver said. “I think we should be cautiously optimistic but realistic.”