Absentee Voting Data: How Much Is Too Much?

In North Carolina, data on citizens casting absentee ballots contains a host of personal identifiers and is readily available. But should it be?

by / November 4, 2016
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Several recent reports on early voting data has been interpreted in myriad ways: Pundits point to the black vote being down; other returns suggest that both Latino and female early voting is higher than in 2012; and some don't see early vote returns as useful in predicting how the states will lean come Nov. 8.

Regardless of the election outcome, each state offers different rules for early voting, whether it's voting by mail or in person — or not at all. As of November 2016, 34 states and the District of Columbia have permitted no-excuse early voting, which means that a qualified voter can cast his or her ballot early with no justification required. Another three states utilize all-mail voting systems, eliminating the need for early voting. Six states allow in-person absentee voting, which requires eligible voters to specify a reason why they would not be able to vote in person on Election Day.

Blue signifies states with no-excuse early voting, red represents states with in-person absentee voting, yellow shows states that have mail-in only voting and green indicates states that have no early voting nor in-person absentee voting.

Much has been made about the important nature of a handful of "battleground states," one of which is North Carolina. But what isn’t covered nearly as much is the amount of easily accessible data from absentee ballots in the state. Looking at the dearth of information available it begs the question: How much is too much?

North Carolina absentee voter data is readily available for download — and it includes raw voter information not only about how residents have opted to vote and what party ballot has been requested, but also personal identifiers such as name, race, age and voting address.

The reason, according to Patrick Gannon, public information officer for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, is the state's committment to transparency.

“We want all the data to be out there for people to use in whatever fashion they wish,” he told Government Technology. And this level of transparency allows data scientists to understand trends, see which demographics are showing up and who is staying home.

North Carolina stands as a unique case in offering this level of openness. While many other states break down absentee and early voter data, few states deliver the entire data set with such depth. Per research conducted by the United States Election Project, a site run by University of Florida Professor Michael P. McDonald, North Carolina provides the most amount of open data on absentee voter returns.

The only other state that comes relatively close to delivering the same amount of data on absentee voters is Georgia. The Peach State's list includes names, addresses and type of ballot requested, but does not list political party registration.

This commitment to openness in North Carolina nothing new, as the same amount of data is available from the 2004, 2008 and 2012 general elections.

It should be of no surprise that there has been a fair amount of pushback regarding the amount of readily available information given privacy concerns, not wanting names and addresses open to the public. Another concern that's been raised is the possibility of stolen identities.

“We’ve had a smattering of complaints,” said Gannon. “But it's all public information, and public information should be made public however and whenever possible.”

Gannon did clarify, however, that in special circumstances, there are ways to redact public information. “If you have domestic violence, protective orders,” he said, there are ways to remove personal information from the spreadsheets.

Also important to keep in mind is that although voting statistics have been aggregated and numbers released, that does not mean we know who the votes are cast for. Several news outlets have made inferences based on how voters are registered to make guesses on who is ahead, but no vote has officially been cast. The Election Project enforces this belief, stating that, “It is important to understand breakdowns of early voters by party registration are not votes.”

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.