How Free Access to Big Data Could Change Future Elections

on Tuesday, Nov. 6th

We’ve heard a lot about Big Data this election cycle. The Obama campaign alone stated that they contacted one out of every 2.5 voters. For most people this just feels like a fact of life, as political campaigns have always had way of reaching out to potential voters. So what if they have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of targeting their constituents?

Behind the scenes, however, a sea change is happening in electioneering. The same kinds of disruptions that have shaken up the advertising and entertainment industries are beginning to affect the political landscape. While they may not fully impact the current election, two years from now we may be looking at a very different kind of game, thanks in part to what the folks at NationBuilder have done this cycle.

“Our mission is to help people run for office and make it as affordable and accessible as possible,” said NationBuilder co-founder and CEO Jim Gilliam. “So what we did was we compiled a nationwide voter file. We went to every state and got all the files. We put it all into a database. We cleaned it up, we standardized it and made it accessible to campaigns by registering their campaign.”

The cost: zero.

In a bid to disrupt the traditional structure NationBuilder has made access to the voter record free. Their Election Center is available to more than just campaigns who sign up for their paid web based platform. Any campaign who wants access to the file–and is willing to abide by the state laws that govern who can use the records– can get access.

The voter record is, in fact, public data. But it is raw public data. Difficult to take action on without massaging it into something useful. For generations now that step has been taken by traditional election data firms that have reserved their services for big bucks. Depending on the size of the record involved, a voter file can run into the thousands of dollars from private firm like Aristotle .

One way that would-be candidates have dealt with the cost of the file is by turning to one of the big political parties. This can be tricky as Gilliam notes “if you are challenging an incumbent.”

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how free access to this data could change the dynamics of electoral politics in this country. The major innovations of the past few decades of politics– direct mail and the 50-state strategy– have come down to a matter of understanding how to manage get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. All of which start with access to voter records.

But what, exactly, is inside this data cache? What do the campaigns know about you that you don’t know they know? While there are all kinds of private databases that political campaigns and other marketers can get their hands on, the core of politics in America is the voter file.

One of the fun things about what NationBuilder is doing is that individual voters can “claim” their voter file through their system. After a voter registers and verifies their identity in the system they can see the available data. It’s actually a bit spooky how much is in there. While the record can’t tell you how you voted, it can tell how many times you’ve gone to the polls, when the first time you voted was, and even give the GPS co-ordinates of your house.

That last one isn’t a joke, either.

It depends, of course, on the accuracy of the records being kept by a voter’s given state. Some people, upon viewing their record, see that their state lists the wrong registration or first voting date. While that data can’t be altered, NationBuilder is giving voters the option of amending their record with instructions on how a campaign should best contact them. That information then becomes available to campaigns who use the NationBuilder version of the record.

This kind of access to our own records might have a long term effect on the way we think about how politicians communicate with us, but in the short term the most interesting outcomes of this democratization of data may come from the access that software developers are being given to the data.

Campaigns within the NationBuilder system can opt-in to giving software developers access to their data, which they can use to build applications off of. This can be GOTV apps or even more creative uses of the information.

“One of the things that I started to hear and see bubble up is sort of shaming people publicly into voting,” Gilliam told me. “Right? As voter data becomes more broadly accessible you can start to publish who didn’t vote. We’ve seen that be used occasionally, like the neighbors will get a flier.”

Aside from the shakiness of some of the data– remember that the dataset relies on the competency of the person who did the inputs– that kind of social pressure could cause a backlash against free and easy access to the voter record data. But if the history of the Internet Age has given us one thing, it’s a belief in the idea that the free distribution of information brings with it a leveling of the playing field of power.

NationBuilder’s Election Center doesn’t change the game completely, but it is a bold first step towards altering America’s electoral process at the root level.

Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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