Does Privacy Kill the Voter File?

Seems that the tried and true method of reaching voters online – the use of purported targeting using voter registration information – is under fire.

And it’s not just one or two little attacks; the hangover from the 2016 election is turning out to be longer than expected. So concerns about individual online privacy, national security and the need to place legal restraints on Big Tech are coming together.

California’s privacy law appears – as of today’s writing – to change the use of voter file information for targeting ads. If it’s not amended the law takes effect as is on January 1, 2020.

Interpretations of the law aren’t exactly clear on a number of fronts. But the basic ideas is that any company which uses data to target ads will be required to notify recipients that they have the right to have their personal info deleted from that company’s records.

This could cover firms (like Spot-On) that run political ad campaigns and companies that sell data derived from voter information. The law is meant to protect users in the state so anyone doing business in California is affected.

In other words, it doesn’t matter where the company using the data is based. Although, of course, the two biggest beneficiaries of political ads spends are located in Menlo Park and Mountain View, California.

Just as important: other states have similar privacy laws. And now there’s a federal effort to specially restrict the use of voter data.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced legislation that would work much like California’s privacy law. The “Voter Privacy Act” would pretty much shut down voter targeting as its currently used online. “Political candidates and campaigns shouldn’t be able to use private data to manipulate and mislead voters,” Feinstein said in her statement on the bill. “This bill would help put an end to such actions.”

The press around this announcement credited the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal but Spot-On looks to the release of the heavily redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2016 elections as the motivation here.

You haven’t read that full report. We haven’t either. We can’t – it’s secret. But Sen. Feinstein is a member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. We bet she has.

There’s no sure path for passage of her bill but there’s a lot of talk about election security. That might mean some form of Congressional action this fall.

And that’s going to mean big changes in how online campaign are run. Bigger than the ones in the works already.What’s the alternative? As long-time readers are aware Spot-On thinks that most voter targeting is a panacea that does little actual targeting. The personally identify information that makes up the bulk of a voter registration file is stripped out for most uses. Targeting often creates a universe so small that it’s ineffective or, worse, an ad buy that’s so expensive that the use of targeting is counter-productive.

We have long preferred the tried-and-true way to reach voters: Buying ads on local news sites which have an overwhelming number of voters as readers. Most TV buyers invest heavily in local news avails. The same strategy should apply for online political placements for one really good reason: It works.

Until recently, it’s been too difficult to buy directly online but Spot-On’s Pinpoint Placement platform will debut this fall, solving that problem for our customers. And providing some much-needed transparency along the way. What a demo? Send an email and we’ll hook you up.


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