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Is My Public Voting Record Actually Good for Democracy?

In 2020, this potentially dangerous system is being used to gamify voting and hold folks like me accountable. Could the peer pressure work?

If the threat of continued vulgar fascism isn’t enough to get you to vote, surely, the social pressure is. I understand the rhetoric of those who are refusing to vote in this election, seeing it ultimately as an act of complicity in an agenda that leaves oppressed people oppressed, no matter which way it swings. But I also understand the people who see this election as truly making or breaking the futures and livelihoods of the oppressed, too, and if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s this latter group I’m more intimidated by. So, for that reason, among others, I have indeed voted in this election — because whether or not I voted is, in many states, public record

While no state will allow any individual or political entity access to the information regarding who you voted for, most states offer some options of seeing what party someone is registered with and whether or not they cast a ballot in specific elections. In Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, even your address and precinct are publicly available, accessible to any individual for free unless you’re enrolled in an address confidentiality program for domestic abuse victims (which themselves aren’t perfect programs) or you’re a member of law enforcement. 

Not every state makes it so easy, though. Arkansas charges $2.50, while Wisconsin charges $12,500 for the state’s entire voter list, typically used by political organizations in order to target voters of specific parties. Still, nearly every state has the option of looking up the details of a particular individual, so long as you already know some basic information. For example, if you only wanted to know about one person in Wisconsin, you’d only need their first and last name and their date of birth to view their registration info and list of elections they’d voted in. 

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Though the system is hypothetically in place for individuals to look up their own registration and make changes if needed, these systems are indeed being used in an attempt to hold people accountable. In Florida, where I’m currently located, YouTube ads warn that while who a Floridian votes for is secret, their friends, family and colleagues can easily find out whether they actually voted. There are even apps that aggregate the data from all of your phone contacts. VoteWithMe, for example, provides me with a list of all the names of just about everyone I have in my phone or added as a friend on Facebook, and places emojis next to their names indicating whether they’re registered in a state where the results will likely be tight, if they’re registered to vote right now and if they voted in 2016 or the 2018 midterms. 

The app tells me that it can’t find my own information, likely because Massachusetts is one of the few states that keeps their records a little tighter. If I go onto the Massachusetts voter registration website, though, I need only a first and last name, date of birth and zip code to find out someone’s party affiliation, registration status, home address and voting precinct. The website states that it’s strictly for use of the individual only, and that attempting access to anyone else “may subject you to criminal prosecution or civil liability.” But how exactly that’s enforced is unclear. 

Nevertheless, had this app actually had my information, they would be able to share one of my deeper shames: I didn’t vote in 2016. I had planned on it, sure, but I was too busy being a college idiot, stressed over beginning a new job. I thought my vote wouldn’t matter, anyway — Hillary seemed guaranteed, and given that I’m from the decidedly Democratic state of Massachusetts, it really probably wouldn’t have mattered much in the big picture. In my small hometown, though, Trump did win. In fact, my hometown had the biggest proportion of Trump voters compared to any other town in the state. Considering there are only 2,000 people in that town and only a fraction of them voted, maybe my individual vote could have made a difference there. 

Either way, I’m not taking the chance again — even if Massachusetts makes finding my voting record more difficult, I don’t want to risk any potential social shaming.