Technology, Data and Elections: An Updated Checklist on the Election Cycle

Our updated data and elections checklist aims to give electoral observers and civil society the necessary tools to understand and assess the role of technologies in the electoral process.

Key advocacy points
  • Personal data is key to emerging ways of political campaigning
  • Technology and its functioning are increasingly at the heart of disputes of the electoral outcome
  • A comprehensive assessment of elections demands consideration of the role that data and technologies play in the electoral processes
Cover image of the report, servers with cables

Photo by Kvistholt Photography on Unsplash.

In the last few years, electoral processes and related activities have undergone significant changes, driven by the development of digital technologies.

The use of personal data has redefined political campaigning and enabled the proliferation of political advertising tailor-made for audiences sharing specific characteristics or personalised to the individual. These new practices, combined with the platforms that enable them, create an environment that facilitate the manipulation of opinion and, in some cases, the exclusion of voters.

In parallel, governments are continuing to invest in modern infrastructure that is inherently data-intensive. Several states are turning to biometric voter registration and verification technologies ostensibly to curtail fraud and vote manipulation. This modernisation often results in the development of nationwide databases containing masses of personal, sensitive information, that require heightened safeguards and protection.

The number and nature of actors involved in the election process is also changing, and so are the relationships between electoral stakeholders. The introduction of new technologies, for example for purposes of voter registration and verification, often goes hand-in-hand with the involvement of private companies, a costly investment that is not without risk and requires robust safeguards to avoid abuse.

An increased need for monitoring and regulation

This new electoral landscape comes with many challenges that must be addressed in order to protect free and fair elections: a fact that is increasingly recognised by policymakers and regulatory bodies.

In recent years, the realisation that the modern reality of elections had fast outpaced applicable rules has prompted a surge in regulatory efforts aimed at ensuring transparency, accountability and the ethical use of data in electoral activities. These have ranged from investigations and the issuance of guidelines by international and domestic bodies to new legislation aiming to set limits on the use of data for political campaigning purposes. Despite these initiatives, the use of data in electoral context remains unregulated in many jurisdictions, which has allowed data-intensive practices such as micro-targeting to proliferate.

This rapidly evolving and intricate environment requires experts and monitors to grapple with the relationship between data, technology and elections. Electoral observers can play a pivotal role in bridging the current knowledge gap that often exists between the public and government officials on this relationship, bolstering voters’ trust in the electoral process by providing an independent, impartial, and expert assessment of all the relevant aspects of the electoral process. By incorporating methodologies which consider the role of electoral technologies and data, observers can provide recommendations on how to effectively respect and protect privacy in the entire electoral cycle.

In the past four years, Privacy International has supported electoral observers and civil society to address some of the challenges posed by the use of technologies and data in elections. Notably, this checklist was informed by our collaboration with the Carter Center in the context of the 2020 Myanmar election and the 2022 Kenyan election. The latter saw PI participate in a pre-election assessment mission, which led to our first-ever election assessment focussed on data and technology.

This updated data and elections checklist aims to reflect on the most recent developments and PI’s analysis and to provide electoral observers and interested members of civil society with the relevant tools to examine and unpack some of the most complex and challenging aspects of the electoral process as they pertain to data and technology.

In particular, the checklist is intended to enable electoral observers to:

  • Assess the functioning of the infrastructure and technologies supporting the electoral process, including their data processing activities;
  • Analyse the potential for voter manipulation through data-intensive political campaigning practices; and
  • Better understand the roles of all stakeholders to the electoral process, ranging from the electoral management body to the private companies providing technologies essential to the voting exercise.

The updated checklist is available to download in English and Spanish.

You can access our previous checklist here.