The short answer is, “No.” Uploading voter files to a Facebook custom audience a violation of their Advertising Policies, so don’t do it or risk having your account banned.
Some may be asking one or more of the following questions: What is a voter file? What is a custom audience? And why would I want to do this in the first place?
According to Pew Research, voter files are digital databases that are “built by commercial organizations using official, publicly available government records of who is registered to vote and who cast ballots in past elections. They not only give a nationwide picture of voter registration and election turnout, but also usually include information from outside data sources (such as consumer data vendors, credit bureaus and political organizations) and are marketed as providing a rich and comprehensive record for nearly every American adult.
However, while information on the voter file record indicates whether or not someone voted in a given election, it does not indicate whom they voted for. That stays with you in the voting booth.”
Anyone can create their own voter file by obtaining a copy of the public voter checklist, which is a public record that can be obtained by asking the clerk in most any city, town, or state (for which they may charge a fee). In most states, it is perfectly legal for a political candidate to call, mail, or knock on the door of a registered voter. And voter checklists are frequently obtained by political parties and made available to their candidates.
Facebook Custom Audiences
When you run an ad campaign, Facebook allows advertisers to upload a list of names, addresses, emails, and/or phone numbers. This is known as a “customer list.” Facebook will then attempt to match those records with its user database, creating what is called a “custom audience,” which can then be targeted with advertisements. Note that the contents of these matched users are “hashed” (a computer term for scrambled and encrypted information), such that the data is only usable by the advertising algorithm and isn’t directly available to humans — including Facebook employees.
Advertising to Voters
Now, it’s probably clear to you why campaigns like uploading voter files to Facebook. They can provide a very specific audience for campaign advertisements. Indeed, it has been common practice for political candidates and consultants to do exactly this. Furthermore, there are many third-party solutions that will both provide the voter list data and run advertising campaigns to those lists on the candidate’s behalf.
Facebook’s Advertising Policies
While accessing, selling, and using this data is all perfectly legal, it’s been a gray area with regard to Facebook’s Advertising Policies. The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal has led to a number of significant changes to its advertising platform in April and May 2018. On April 5, 2018, Facebook announced new policies for “Increased Transparency and Accountability for Electoral and Issue Ads.” These new policies included requiring ad account authorization, labeling such ads as “Political Ad” and displaying “paid for by” information, and others.
More specifically, Facebook requires advertisers to accept Custom Audiences Terms of service, which include the following:
You represent and warrant that the Hashed Data does not relate to data about any individual who has exercised an option that you have, directly or indirectly, committed to honoring or provided to opt out of having that data disclosed and used for targeted advertising. To the extent an individual exercises such an opt-out after you have used data relating to that individual to create a custom audience, you will remove that data subject from the custom audience.
That’s a mouthful and it has left some things open to interpretation. I’ve surveyed dozens of advertisers and political consultants about their practices and interpretation. Perhaps not surprisingly, non-political advertising veterans were unanimous in their conclusion that public voter checklists (and likely voter files) violate these terms while political consultants tended to have a much more liberal interpretation.
Today, during a quarterly call with my Facebook advertising account manager, I stated the following: “It seems clear to me that uploading a public voter checklist to a Facebook custom audience is a clear violation of the advertising policies because the user did not explicitly opt-in.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, her reply was, “Correct.”
No hedging. No conditions. No exceptions. She went on to say that much has changed over the past few months and emphasized that political ads are receiving far more scrutiny than they were just two months ago.
What Is the Risk?
Many of the candidates and consultants I spoke with simply shrugged their shoulders and said something to the effect that “It’s only a violation if you get caught.” That’s true. In a previous career, I was pretty heavily involved in risk management and so I know that a rough formula for risk is likelihood multiplied by consequence.
So, what’s the likelihood that Facebook will find out? I can’t answer that. All I can say for sure is that it is much, much higher than it was a couple of months ago. My Facebook account manager was quite definitive: She would definitely advise against it.
And what’s the consequence? This is less unclear but still untested. What we do know is that your ad account will be suspended and you will be unable to run any ads. Normally, advertisers can simply create a new account and they simply lose their historical data. But what’s unclear now is whether or not you’ll need to go through the authorization process again. If that’s the case, it could be another week or two before the ad account is back up and running. But that’s the best-case scenario. The worst case would be that your authorization is permanently revoked and your days of running political ads are over.
Every campaign will need to assess this risk for themselves. If you’re hiring a third party to run ads for you, I would recommend that you ask them if they are utilizing voter files to create custom audiences. Personally, my days of uploading voter files to custom audiences are over.