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Political Data-Mining and Election 2012

by Chris Evans, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Thumbnail-Chris-Evans.jpgIn "It's the Autonomy, Stupid: Political Data-Mining and Voter Privacy in the Information Age," I wrote about the compilation and aggregation of voter data by political campaigns and how data-mining can upset the balance of power between voters and politicians. The Democratic and Republican data operations have evolved rapidly and quietly since my Note went to press, so I'd like to point out a couple of recent articles on data-mining in the 2012 campaign.

In August, the AP ran this exclusive: "Romney uses secretive data-mining." Romney has hired an analytics firm, Buxton Co., to help his fundraising by identifying untapped wealthy donors. The AP reports:

"The effort by Romney appears to be the first example of a political campaign using such extensive data analysis. President Barack Obama's re-election campaign has long been known as data-savvy, but Romney's project appears to take a page from the Fortune 500 business world and dig deeper into available consumer data."

I'm not sure it's true Buxton is digging any deeper than the Democrats' Catalist or Obama's fundraising operation. Campaigns from both parties have been scouring consumer data for years. As for labeling Romney's operation "secretive," the Obama campaign wouldn't even comment on its fundraising practices for the article, which strikes me as equally if not more secretive. Political data-mining has always been nonpartisanly covert; that's part of the problem. When voters don't know they're being monitored by campaigns, they are at a disadvantage to candidates. (And when they do know they're being monitored, they may alter their behavior.) This is why I argued in my Note for greater transparency of data-mining practices by candidates.

A more positive spin on political data-mining appeared last week, also by way of the AP: "Voter registration drives using data mining to target their efforts, avoid restrictive laws." Better, cheaper technology and Republican efforts to restrict voting around the country are inducing interest groups to change how they register voters, swapping their clipboards for motherboards. This is the bright side of political data-mining: being able to identify non-voters, speak to them on the issues they care about, and bring them into the political process.

The amount of personal voter data available to campaigns this fall is remarkable, and the ways data-miners aggregate and sort that data is fascinating. Individuals ought to be let in on the process, though, so they know what candidates and groups are collecting what type of personal information, and so they can opt out of the data-mining.