Voter turnout is chronically and
horrendously low amongst young adults, and campaigns of the past
have seen numerous attempts to mobilize apathetic youths. This
coming election year is no different. Youth-voter initiatives
ranging from MTV’s now familiar Rock the Vote campaign to new
organizations such as the New Voters Project are stepping up their
efforts to register young voters for the November elections. In an
effort to use technology to engage college age people, some
voter-registration initiatives have begun collecting the cell phone
numbers of potential voters.

Mira Levitan

Spokespersons for youth voting campaigns claim that collecting
cell phone numbers will allow them to reach out to young voters by
providing information on registration deadlines and precinct
locations as well as reminders to vote. However, the lists of
cellular phone numbers could be taken advantage of and should be
viewed with suspicion. At least one group, the New Voters Project,
has plans to provide its list of young voters to “political
marketers” in the fall. This, they argue, will increase youth
voter turnout as candidates and political organizations will be
able to directly contact young voters.

This strategy of using cell phones could easily prove intrusive
upon young voters’ privacy. The New Voters Project, for
example, collects cell phone numbers through sticky notes attached
to state voter registration forms that ask for a phone number and
email address and whether the person wants “election
information.” Nowhere on the sticky note or on the
organization’s website, is there any notice that the
information will be provided to third party “political
marketers.” While none of the organizations have explicitly
announced plans to release the cell phone numbers they collect to
commercial telemarketers, such a list would be a prime target for
abuse since there is no national database of cell phone numbers.
Youth voter campaigns argue that their privacy statements would
prevent such abuse. This is of little comfort, however, in light of
the fact that another youth voter initiative, Declare Yourself,
violated its own privacy policy earlier this year in sharing voter
data, including cell phone numbers, with the aforementioned New
Voters Project.

Even if no privacy violations take place, it is still doubtful
that cell phone calls would increase voter turnout as these
organizations claim. Many Americans, plagued by telemarketing
calls, regard any phone solicitation as a nuisance. As most cell
phone plans charge subscribers minutes even for incoming calls, it
is difficult to see how young voters contacted by a political
candidate’s campaign would view the call as anything but a
waste of their precious daytime minutes. The result may be a noble
and well-intentioned initiative that does more harm than good to
its own cause. Of course the ballot box should be extended to all
demographics, and issues such as the environment, the onerous cost
of college tuition and a ballooning national debt forcibly shoveled
onto the shoulders of college age citizens make it crucial that
young people be encouraged to vote. However, the risk that these
cell phone number databases will violate young people’s
privacy and further alienate them as potential voters outweighs the
supposed benefits.

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