Voter caging is the practice of sending mass direct mailings to registered voters by non-forwardable mail, then compiling “caging lists” from the returned mail in order to challenge [the addressees’] right to vote on that basis alone. Armed with no other evidence than returned mail, partisan operatives abuse state laws to file targeted mass challenges […] to disenfranchise large numbers of minority voters.
In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, ”you can observe a lot by just watching.” To which any self-respecting physicist might add: “…and by merely observing a system, you change its behavior.”
It’s a lesson that has practical consequences far beyond the subatomic world of gluons and charmed quarks, or even the baseball diamond. It’s also a practical guide for voting rights defenders.
On the outside (that is to say, the voter-facing side), North Carolina progressives’ grassroots NC-GoVote and its free Reg Watch service protect individual voters by monitoring their voter registration records, alerting them by email if they’re purged from the poll book, or if hackers monkey with their registration records, or if any of a dozen other things happen that could disenfranchise them come election day.
Providing that free service is Reg Watch’s day-job (or would be, if it paid). But by night, when NC-GoVote’s computing infrastructure isn’t otherwise occupied, it turns to continuously performing deep analytics on all 7 million NC voters’ registration records (not just on those of the thousands who have signed up for Reg Watch in the first three months of its existence), on the lookout for bigger statewide problems, and ready to blow the whistle as quickly as they turn up. I jokingly refer to this less visible face of NC-GoVote not as Reg Watch, but as Night’s Watch.
And the single most interesting thing that Night’s Watch has observed so far this year, down there on the far side of the Wall, is…silence from North Carolina’s usually frenetic voter caging operatives. In a typical year here in North Carolina, this close to an important election, we’d be seeing hundreds of Tar Heels disenfranchised via “voter challenges” (the State Board of Elections’ polite name for voter caging). Or in a really crazy year full of sabotage, like 2016, we’d be seeing thousands of voters removed from the poll book via voter caging operations such as that mounted by the trumpist North Carolina Voter Integrity (sic) Project in 2016.
But so far this year…nothing. Not a single successful ’voter challenge’ in NC since our watch began. As far as I can tell from the available data, that’s completely unprecedented in the last decade of North Carolina electoral history. And time is fast running out for voter caging to impact this year’s election.
Is this just the calm before the storm? Your guess is as good as mine. Have Republican vote suppressors simply off-shored their purge efforts to more highly skilled Russian hackers who can conduct less easily detected but even more effective mayhem inside the state’s voter registration database? While that’s certainly a possibility, I can say that Night’s Watch monitors over 50 additional statistics, all designed to detect the merest hint of funny business in the state’s poll book, and this year we haven’t seen any (yet).
If I sound disappointed, let me assure you I’m not. Because in voting rights the best surprise is no surprise. If this silence is a predictable consequence of the observer effect — a robbery that doesn’t happen because there’s a beat cop walking the sidewalk, doing community policing on this block — that’s exactly what we hoped for when we launched NC-GoVote. We certainly can’t take all the credit though. I know plenty of voting rights defenders here in North Carolina for whom the state’s voter database is required bedtime reading, and has been for years. The only real difference between their efforts and our own is that (1) statistically and technologically speaking, we probably dig a lot deeper (hey, we’re card-carrying data scientists); and (2) we’re very, very public about our efforts. We’re watching — every single day — and we’re more than happy to let the bad guys…both foreign and domestic…know that we’re watching.
Of course, it ain’t over till it’s over. The next 100 nights might still, at any moment, become very interesting indeed here on NC-GoVote’s watch. Here’s hoping they don’t. We’re working hard to help insure that our job is as boring as possible.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.