My dentist, a registered Republican, did not vote in the last midterm elections, in 2014.
But the owner of my local bookstore, a registered Democrat, did vote then. So did my accountant, who is not registered with either party.
I know these details not because the dentist, the bookseller and the accountant volunteered to share their voting histories with me. I found out from VoteWithMe and OutVote, two new political apps that are trying to use peer pressure to get people to vote Tuesday.
The apps are to elections what Zillow is to real estate — services that pull public information from government records, repackage it for consumer viewing and make it available at the touch of a smartphone button. But instead of giving you a peek at house prices, VoteWithMe and OutVote let you snoop on which of your friends voted in past elections and their party affiliations — and then prod them to go to the polls by sending them scripted messages like “You gonna vote?”
“I don’t want this to come off like we’re shaming our friends into voting,” said Naseem Makiya, the chief executive of OutVote, a start-up in Boston. But, he said, “I think a lot of people might vote just because they’re frankly worried that their friends will find out if they didn’t.”
Whom Americans vote for is private. But other information in their state voter files is public information; depending on the state, it can include details like their name, address, phone number and party affiliation and when they voted. The apps try to match the people in a smartphone’s contacts to their voter files, then display some of those details.
The data’s increasing availability may surprise people receiving messages nudging them to vote — or even trouble them, by exposing personal politics they might have preferred to keep to themselves. Political campaigns have for years purchased voter files from states or bought national voter databases from data brokers, but the information has otherwise had little public exposure outside of campaign use. Now any app user can easily harness such data to make inferences about, and try to influence, their contacts’ voting behavior.
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“You want to use that gentle social pressure around voting,” said Amanda Coulombe, general manager of organizing at NGP VAN, a campaign technology company for Democrats, “but really making sure you are balancing that with not freaking people out.”
The apps could also have unintended consequences, said Ira Rubinstein, a senior fellow at the Information Law Institute at New York University School of Law who studies voter privacy.
For one thing, he said, people could use the apps to create contact lists of acquaintances, strangers or public figures they do not like and maliciously publicize their voting histories. As a hypothetical example, he said, religious leaders might be outed for registering with a political party whose platform runs counter to their institution’s doctrine.
“I don’t think there are any particular safeguards to prevent people from just assembling a contact list for more malicious purposes, acquiring this information and using it to harass or coerce people,” Mr. Rubinstein said.
The apps’ developers say they are simply democratizing access to these public records.
The apps are free for consumers to use. But OutVote, which received seed funding last summer from Y Combinator, a well-known start-up accelerator, also works with political candidates and groups that pay fees to use the app as part of their campaigns. VoteWithMe was developed by the New Data Project, a nonprofit founded by Obama administration appointees.