Research & Innovation

Researchers Unearth Voter Privacy Loophole in New York City Elections

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology and Princeton University individually identified nearly 400 voters and their choices in the 2021 New York City mayoral and all lower primary elections

(Hoboken, N.J. – Sept. 20, 2021) – Two factors to enhance confidence in democracy are the secret ballot and auditable public election records. Normally, it is possible to have both.

But the data reporting requirements adopted in recent changes to the New York City Charter have made it possible to identify the choices of hundreds of city voters in the June 22, 2021 primary election. 

Stevens Institute of Technology Assistant Professor of Political Science Lindsey Cormack, in collaboration with Jesse Clark and Sam Wang of Princeton University’s Electoral Innovation Lab, managed to unearth the voter privacy lapse with just a few lines of code and the merging of two publicly available datasets.

“The secret ballot is a sacred feature of U.S. elections, and when that’s in doubt we all have reason to be concerned,” Cormack said. 

In each of the 378 cases identified, the match contained the voter's name, address, assembly and electoral district (AD/ED) information and how their vote was cast, including each ranking. Before 2021, if sufficiently few voters cast ballots in a specific assembly/election district, those records were bundled with another district. In 2021, this step was not taken. Therefore, an AD/ED with one voter can be matched with the New York state voter file, allowing researchers to see if a registered voter voted and how he or she voted.

Cormack, who suspected such a breach was possible, reached out to Clark at Princeton’s Electoral Innovation Lab to obtain the New York State Voter file with a Freedom of Information Act request. Cormack and her colleagues were the first research team to find the privacy loophole, and were told by the Board of Elections (BOE) they were aware the error could arise.

Cormack and her team have offered the BOE  solutions to avoid future voter privacy breaches.

“This is not a hard problem to solve technically, but this is something the city should work to remedy as soon as possible,” Cormack said.

Cormack and her colleagues raised the issue to better protect the privacy of voters in New York City in a way that preserves otherwise important access to data on elections. 

"This is an example of why having people with backgrounds in government and data security is so important," Cormack said. "As our online data environment gets richer, we need to have epople thinking about ow to best balance data availability and security. Voter privacy and data transparency are not in conflict and fixing this problem does not require sacrificing either."

To read the full report on Privacy Concerns in New York City Elections, click here.  

– Stevens – 

About Stevens Institute of Technology 

Stevens Institute of Technology is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, New Jersey. Since our founding in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark of Stevens’ education and research. Within the university’s three schools and one college, 7,300 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate closely with faculty in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment. Academic and research programs spanning business, computing, engineering, the arts and other disciplines actively advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront our most pressing global challenges. As Stevens celebrates its 150th anniversary, the university continues to be consistently ranked among the nation’s leaders in career services, post-graduation salaries of alumni, and return on tuition investment. 

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