Carolina Curious: Why Is So Much Voter Data Publicly Available?

Carolina Curious: Why Is So Much Voter Data Publicly Available?

7:38am Jan 30, 2019

Late last year, the State Board of Elections began an investigation into North Carolina's 9th Congressional District because of potential voting irregularities.

Since then, several analyses of publicly-available voter data have reinforced the idea that votes may have been manipulated in some way to benefit one of the candidates.

Listener Carol Keck wanted to know why such data is available in the first place, especially to political parties and candidates.

In this edition of Carolina Curious, WFDD’s Sean Bueter speaks with UNC-Greensboro political scientist Charles Prysby to find out more.

Interview Highlights

On what voter data the North Carolina Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement keeps on file:

They have basic demographic information such as your gender, race, and age. They have your address, of course, and also your voting history – not, of course, how you voted, because that's a secret ballot – but whether or not you voted in any particular election, and that would include primaries.

So you could look up, for example, to see if someone voted in the 2008 elections. You could see whether a person voted in the primaries that year, and if so, which primary they voted in – the Democratic or Republican primary – information like that. This is pretty much standard across states. Every state has its own laws, but it's pretty much the same thing across the states.

On why they keep that data:

They need the information because people have to register to vote in the state. Almost every state has voter registration and you can't vote in the election unless you're a registered voter. And so you have to have that information to make sure that the people who are voting are people who are eligible to vote.

The reason it's public information is to allow political parties and candidates and other interested organizations to be able to contact voters more effectively.

On how making voting data available helped catch potential improprieties in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, which is still undecided:

Well, first let me start by saying that that's another reason for making this information publicly available. I already said there was one reason – that candidates, political parties, and other organizations could more effectively contact voters. But the other reason is to make that information available to all groups, including the media for example, who might want to investigate possible voting irregularities of any sort.

And I think in the case of Bladen County you can see the value of that. So by looking at the number of absentee ballots that were requested and the number that were actually submitted and comparing that to other counties you can see that Bladen County stood out as having been quite a deviant case.

(Ed.: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.)

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