Vote early, vote often, but don’t vote via social networks

Votizen lets you endorse the candidates of your choice and connect with others across the Web who share your beliefs. That's not necessarily a winning strategy.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an election year. We’ve already seen a number of new wrinkles this election cycle, such as SuperPacs and the Republican candidates tearing at each other like a pack of rabid jackals (usually it’s the Democrats who do that).

Here’s another: A social network built around on whom you plan to vote for.

The idea behind Votizen is to get people to be more politically active by connecting them with other like-minded folks, which I suppose is laudable (assuming they agree with me, of course). But I think being too upfront about your politics online could have unintended and unpleasant consequences down the line. More on that in a bit.

To sign up for Votizen you’ll need to connect it to your Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn account. Votizen will also ask you for your real name, birthdate, and the address where you’re registered to vote, then check that information against voter registration databases. It will pull up all of the elections for the past 12 years and ask you to identify whom you voted for. (Though you don’t have to do this.) It also asks you if you want to endorse any of the major candidates running for national office.

If you’re not a registered voter, or Votizen simply can’t verify your registration, you can still use the site to endorse candidates, it just won’t display your previous voting choices.

votizen buddy roemer endorsement 600 p.jpg

Endorse, say, Buddy Roemer for president, and that information goes on the home page of the site, at least briefly. You can share your endorsements via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also see the Votizen profiles of anyone else who endorsed Roemer (or any other candidate, for that matter).

This ends up in some oddball results. For example, if the election were held today entirely among people who’ve signed up for Votizen, Ron Paul would be our next president (with Rick Santorum as runner up). But if only verified voters were counted, Obama would win re-election in a landslide.

Of course, many people already wear their politics on their sleeves. They volunteer for campaigns, they go door to door, they get in arguments with the other side in a gazillion different comment forums online. So what’s the big deal?

Put up a lawn sign or slap a bumper sticker on your car, and your neighbors know where you stand (and may cut you off in traffic), but that’s where it ends. Put your endorsement on Facebook or a site like Votizen, and not only do thousands of strangers know where you stand on an issue or candidate, that data could be searched, harvested, and used against you.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated that every state maintain a database of registered voters. The idea was to prevent dead people and house pets from voting (if only by proxy) by matching names of registered voters against other government databases, such as DMV or Social Security records. But what resulted was a big opportunity for data miners to make money from people performing their civic duties.

Companies like Aristotle make big bucks selling databases of registered and likely voters to political organizations, who use them for fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts. But Aristotle doesn’t stop at the bare-bones information listed in most voter registration databases – name, address, party affiliation, when and where you last voted. It also can append the files with the following bits of data gleaned largely from other public records databases. 

  • Age & Birthdate
  • Race & Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Party Affiliation
  • Lifestyle Choices
  • Education & Wealth Level
  • Family & Children
  • Donors to Political, Arts, Welfare
  • Marital Status
  • Hunting & Fishing
  • Super Voters
  • Registration Date
  • Business Owner
  • Own vs. Rent
  • Emails

Say you want a list of all registered Democrats who voted in the last election, own their own homes, are married, like to hunt or fish, make a certain amount of money, and live within a particular ZIP code. Aristotle can sell you a list of names that meet those criteria for 3 cents per voter, provided you can prove you’re requesting the data for “valid political use.”

What’s to keep Aristotle or some other company like it from scraping your public endorsements of candidates off sites like Votizen and adding them to your profile?

I asked Votizen co-founder Jason Putorti. His response, in part:

"Our users are thrilled to be able to directly campaign for the candidates they are passionate about. And as social media matures, particularly with a younger generation, the value of sharing becomes more and more apparent….

But social also has its own special set of rules that eschew harvesting. Not only are there the obvious protections that we employ (such as consumer-protective Terms of Service for reputable firms; and threat detection and security for those who are not) but there is also the importance of the graph itself:  it is insufficient to simply have information about people through their activities and the voter rolls. Political consultants have employed micro-targeting techniques for close to two decades and that isn't stopping. But the channels that those harvesting techniques rely on (television, direct mail and robocalls) are what's becoming ineffective. So it will be the political graph— the collection of relationships that people have and share between, that will be the real place where campaigns are won and lost, and its why we put the voter at the center of our service." 

To me, that sounds like Putorti is saying social networks are the next frontier for political marketing. He’s probably right. I can’t say the idea thrills me, though.

Again, what’s the harm? Maybe nothing. But tell that to the woman who got fired in 2004 for having a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on her car. The First Amendment doesn’t protect you against private companies suppressing your  speech. Only in this case, your boss doesn’t have to stroll through the parking lot looking for people with contrary opinions; she can stroll through Votizen.

It’s easy enough to spin off different scenarios where people might have an adverse reaction to your political persuasions. Depending on your point of view, you might think twice about hiring someone who’s a fan of the Tea Party or a former Community Organizer who may or may not have been born inside US borders, for example. Data miners might discover a correlation between people who vote for Libertarian candidates and those who get charged with DUIs, and ratchet up their fees accordingly -- even if that Libertarian happens to be a teetotaler.

At this moment there are no privacy throttles on Votizen, though Putorti says they are adding some.

We are adding a setting very soon to remove your profile from Google, as we've received two requests from users and I took care of them personally. Otherwise, we chose the word ‘endorsement’ specifically because it's by definition the act of giving public approval or support to a candidate. It's possible we'll provide tools for people to participate without being so public, but for now, we're built for people who are passionate about politics and are excited to share and campaign publicly.

There’s a good reason we pull the curtain behind us when we go to cast our votes. I don’t want to give up my right to a secret ballot. I fear that sites like Votizen will ultimately lead to the de facto loss of a private vote, and possibly much worse.

Your sentiments of course may vary. It is a free country – so far, anyway.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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