Anna Elena Maria Ferrari

Electorate databases and voters targeting are nowadays part of the political campaign professional research techniques.

We live in the era of ‘market-oriented’ political parties, where voters are viewed as customers. In this context, many researchers believe that electorate databases are essential in the development and efficient use of methods such as polling, focus groups and market testing.  Parties need to position according the electorate’s needs and to target the electorate. Since the goal of political campaign is to maximize the chances to win, accurate analysis of data of voters’ preferences is needed because it reveals true unobserved characteristics about citizens.

Using databases is part of the nowadays professionalization of political campaign. The USA, especially with the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, were the first country to experiment professional political campaigns and voter databases and inspired other countries. According to Timothy Prescott, data analysis team member in Obama campaigns, big data mean accuracy: parties can be more efficient, more successful, eliminate errors and save money.

But what does it mean for democracy?

Low turnout and swinging voters

In Western countries we live in an era of declining ideology, lower voters turnout and increasing volatility of the electorate, as well as growing number of late deciders during the last 72 hours of the campaign. In response to that, political databases and targeting can make the communication more relevant for the recipient. This aspect can be very good for democracy and benefit voters, because it can sparkle enthusiasm, boost participation and eventually increase wider citizens support for parties and the Government elected.

Moreover, targeting swinging voters can save resources because it is possible to avoid trying to persuade who does not have intention to change opinion. In this regard, a better management of public money is clearly good for democracy. This is even a stronger need now that expenditures for campaigns are rising and political marketing is a growing business.

A party would be now able to target swing voters through door knocking with volunteers at their homes -or other techniques such as letters or social media ads- on the basis of the issues that are more interesting to those voters and with prepared arguments. For example, it is possible to address issues on youth to the youngsters and seniors’ to seniors and so on. This is all the more important nowadays, when people live fast-paced life and have limited time to gather information.

Is there a risk for manipulation?

The use of databases have raised concerns on the state of representative democracy. One danger is that they could increase the power of the rulers over the ruled and mark the ascendance of a cartelised party system, because a leading party candidate has more information and more resources than the opposition. On the other hand, however, also small parties can benefit from targeting. The example of the recent USA presidential elections shows that the opposition can still win, like Trump did, even with less resources than Hillary Clinton.

On the opposite, some fear that targeting swinging voters will skew public policy towards the wants of a tiny minority of the electorate, at the expenses of the majority.

The answer lies in the view of what representative democracy is and in the trust in the ability of the electorate to decide. Some authors like Jennifer Lees-Marshment also warn that the effects of these techniques should not be overestimated and external factors, like the media, can still be influential as campaign channels. However, for example, the support of large media outlets was not enough for Hillary Clinton to win the recent USA elections. Therefore, other researchers are questioning the traditional media influence, because the new media offer different sources of information for the public. At the same time, one big risk lies in ‘auto-generated’ filters, like the filter bubble on social media. More research needs to be done on this topic.

The take away point is that new technologies will still not guarantee the result (an automatic win) because they will only help campaigns that are already well off with strong content and leader, but they allow improvements in political campaigns. For instance, volunteers still need to convince, but now they are better at using messages more likely to resonate with persuadable neighbors. This leads to higher quality interactions between campaigners and citizens, as well as to a more enjoyable experience for the volunteers.  Positive results can be a greater pluralism for marginalized groups, for people who are not normally interested in politics and less political cynicism.

Defending privacy

New opportunities come also with new risks and responsibilities. In fact, databases can collect a number of highly sensitive information on voters such as name, address, phone number, voting patterns, political donations, estimated income, race, family members, even magazine subscriptions. There can be a danger of misuse of those data in the form of ‘Big Brother’ and in case a State turns into a dictatorship, this can even be terrifying. Even without such extremes, it is bad when there is little scrutiny of databases. According to authors such as Peter van Onselen & Wayne Errigton, major political parties have no interest in public scrutiny because people would be upset to be monitored and change their behavior, which is clearly not good for a party who wants to program its targets. Privacy is a value very close to people. However, there are ways to secure more privacy while still using data: for example, according to Colin Bennett, in Europe data protection rules protect voters stronger than in the USA and Canada.

Taking an extremely defensive position against databases because “they endanger democracy” as a whole is not the right way. We should rather find solutions: public consciousness of such databases and parties’ public scrutiny, an attentive legislation to prevent collection of data without informed consent, mandatory ethical training for parties’ staff. People should also be able to edit/delete information afterwards. All of this should be included in a clear legal framework, based on transparency and accountability, and with the establishment of independent authorities as monitors. Such approach could also create a positive pressure for the development of the European data protection law.

Contribution to democracy, but with some warnings

In conclusion, databases and electorate targeting are an interesting opportunity and can have a positive impact on the state of democracy. A better communication with the electorate, more participation, a better managing of the money: this is all good for democracy. The problems of privacy and manipulation exist, but there are solutions inscribed in a clear legal framework and public information. Instead of not using them tout court, it is better to learn how to regulate them and make the process transparent. These techniques are not the only answer to election success, so the game of democracy is still open. Only, now it has a new tool to explore.


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Anna Elena Maria Ferrari

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author, and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of ALDA and the European Union.