The Lopsided Value of Voter Data

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Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is touting her office’s new tool for tracking early and mail-in votes down to the precinct level.

The data visualization allows users to easily track how many votes have been cast in every Rhode Island community, down to the precinct level. Users can also explore how many votes have been cast by mail ballot or early in-person in each community or precinct. This information will be updated each evening after early in-person voting locations close for the day.

This is certainly neat, and it will provide those of us who pay more attention to elections than is probably healthy to keep an eye on things and spot potential stories to write about.  We should be clear about one thing, though:  This data tool does nothing to prove “that Rhode Island’s elections are an open process that voters can absolutely trust.”  It merely tells us how many have voted, not whether the votes were legitimate.  Data on how each vote was verified would begin to do that — percentage rejected, type of ID used, an accuracy score for the signature match, and so on.

As it is, this tool is mainly a dream for people who are extremely organized.  Theoretically, groups will be able to figure out who has voted on a day to day basis.  Take Central Falls:  Each precinct has fewer than 100 mail ballots expected.  Upon a direct inquiry to the state, a well-organized (and probably well-funded) group could get the names of all of them, track them down, assess their views, help supporters, suppress opponents, and track the results as they roll in.

Naturally, one could say that this is a tool that cuts both ways, but who does it advantage?  In a lopsided state like Rhode Island, it mainly helps powerful insiders and special interests with the most to gain or lose and with the ability to do more to pressure voters than simply making an argument about what the right policy is.

One hesitates to suggest that less information should be available, but as citizens call for increased transparency from government, we have to be vigilant about what is transparent and what is not.