Voting Apps and Political Privacy
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November 06, 2018

Voting Apps and Political Privacy

Apps like OutVote and VoteWithMe allow you to easily see how your friends, family, and colleagues have voted. Should we be concerned?

If you aren't familiar with these types of applications, they enable you to send reminders to your contacts so that they go out and vote. This is incredibly important, right? I had someone send me a reminder, so I installed the application with the intention of reminding others.

It only took a couple taps to install VoteWithMe on my phone and sync my contacts. Once that was done, I was taken to a Contacts tab that looks pretty similar to the stock Contacts app on my phone. However, on this list, there are big red and blue icons next to the names of nearly everyone I know, telling me whether they are a Republican or Democrat.

Some of them I had already known, or their political persuasion was made fairly clear when interacting with them in everyday life — those weren't particularly interesting. The ones I did find interesting were those who I interacted with in environments where political discussion was taboo, such as teachers and co-workers. It was also pretty easy to identify people who talk one way but vote another.

VoteWithMe makes it easy to identify political leanings and "motivate" everyone from your family to those you haven't kept in touch with.

While this data is already public, it is still unsettling that anyone you know could retrieve this information on a whim, without any notice to you. It is easy to imagine scenarios where this could be personally or professionally damaging: friends may not want to hang out as much, or you might be skipped over for a job or promotion without knowing why.

But it is important, right?

How does it work?

When someone (e.g. VoteWithMe) looks up your voting record, they can see all elections you have voted in. They do not see individual candidates you voted for. The way they infer political party is by checking which primary elections you have participated in. If you have switched parties, they will use the party of the most recent primary you have voted in as your party affiliation.

How is this data being used?

You might think that this information would be a gold mine for advertising, behavioral profiling, etc. I do have to point out that VoteWithMe makes it very clear that they do not retain voting information about you or your contacts; in fact, their FAQ and Privacy Policy state that this information is removed from their servers after seven days. While it is on their servers, they explicitly state that they will not reach out to you or your contacts, or share your data with any third parties that would.


First and foremost: please do not let this deter you from voting. Ultimately, this information is already public and if someone really wanted to find out how you vote, they could do it. That said, it is important to respect people's privacy. If you really want to have a discussion about why someone votes the way they do, please do so in a mature and respectable manner. Tensions continue to rise between political parties and tools like these, while useful, can easily add fuel to the fire.

Since you probably haven't heard it enough, the United States midterm elections are today. If you haven't already, please take the time to go vote.