Ask Civics 101: Is My Vote Traced Back To Me?
Today we’re answering a question from a listener who asks: When voting statistics such as gender, race and education level are released post election, how was that determined? Is my individual vote traced back to me?
First and foremost, are your election officials releasing information about you? All states have statutes dictating the release of voter registration files. Some limit the release of these files to parties and candidates, some to registered voters of that state, some allow anyone to request them.
The information itself varies as well, but most states prohibit the release of your social security and driver’s license numbers. Many redact your date of birth, some your signature and email address. What is and is not protected from release is up to your state legislators.
In New Hampshire, for example, political parties, party committees and candidates may receive a copy of the voter registration list. Any member of the public may view this list at the state archives office, but is not permitted to print, duplicate, transmit or, of course, alter the data. Your name, domicile address, mailing address, voter history and party affiliation are available for viewing, however all other information on the form is redacted.
In New Hampshire, as in most other states, this information can only be used for non-commercial purposes. The idea here is to make this information available only for scholarly and campaigning purposes.
Is there anything you can do about this? Many states have a provision that protects the residence of participants of an ACP, or address confidentiality program. These programs are designed to conceal the location of victims of domestic and sexual abuse and stalking. Still other states redact the information of law enforcement officers and their families. In California, even reproductive health care providers, employees, volunteers and patients have their addresses protected.
Still, this is not necessarily the source of data for researchers and media outlets who are analyzing and publishing data on voters. Education level, for example, would be impossible to obtain from your voter registration file alone. The demographic data you see comes from a variety of sources and methodology. While the Federal Election Commission releases information on voter turnout, the Census Bureau obtains voter data on age, race, sex and more in every national election using the Current Population Survey. The survey asks whether you voted, and asks nonvoters why they abstained.
American National Election Studies from the University of Michigan conducts a study of its own, asking everything from voter age to income and education level to union membership details, and the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago collects voter data every other year just before an election takes place, and Edison Research for the National Election Pool conducted exit polls this year (which often involved surveying early voters and making phone calls due to the pandemic).
While these various sources of information can provide a general picture of the electorate, they cannot be said to, even in aggregate, represent a perfect picture of American voters. This is in part because the most illustrative data is dependent on people actually responding to these surveys, and responding accurately. Data shows, for example, that people tend to “overreport” voting data. In other words, reporting they voted when they did not. Research shows that over-reporters tend to be people who have the most pressure and expectation laid on them to vote -- that is, partisan, religious or highly educated people.