According to the California Voter Foundation, the chief purposes of voter registration are to both prevent voter fraud and to facilitate election administration. An equally important but less well-known purpose is to provide political campaigns with contact and personal information about voters and their history of election participation.
One way campaigns ensure that their message reaches the most desirable of voters is to know who those voters are in the first place. Voter lists are comprised largely of personal information supplied by voters when they filled out their voter registration forms. The most common types of information collected on voter registration forms include name, address, signature, date of birth, phone number, gender, party affiliation, and all or part of the voter’s Social Security number. For the record, voters who are concerned about identity theft will be relieved to know that Social Security numbers are removed from voter lists before distribution in every state where they are collected.
Voter registration forms are processed by local election agencies, who input the data from the forms into voter lists. Voter lists are public record because they are government documents created by government agencies. If a state’s laws do not explicitly permit the redistribution of voter lists, public records laws have been widely utilized as justification for redistribution to secondary users.
Before computerization, voter lists were protected to some degree by the notion of practical obscurity because such lists were available only on paper. Now that voter lists are widely available in a computerized format, they are also easy to duplicate, transfer and utilize in connection with other lists and databases. On the one hand, a person’s voter registration record is by tradition and law a public record because all citizens have an interest in ensuring the legitimacy of all voters and the integrity of the electoral system. On the other hand, widespread access to personal voter data can jeopardize a voter’s privacy and safety.
Every state allows its voter registration data to be used for political purposes, which typically include sending campaign mail, precinct-walking and phone banking. Political campaigns and parties are the most common secondary users of voter registration data. Campaigns typically obtain voter data by either purchasing it directly from their state or local elections offices, acquiring it from their political party, or buying it from political data vendors. Forty-three states use voter lists as a juror source list. State legislatures are required to draw new districts every ten years to ensure that legislative districts within a state have a relatively equal numbers of residents, and they often use voter registration data for the redistricting process. Other governmental agencies, such as tax authorities, law enforcement, and state employment agencies, may also use voter registration data to locate citizens.
A campaign can now easily find out how many Democrats with Latino surnames who voted in the primary and don’t have a Republican in the household are in any given precinct. In the process of precisely targeting who they want to reach, campaigns are skilled at ignoring those they are not interested in reaching — primarily nonvoters and infrequent voters — savings millions of dollars of public funding.
In California, the use of voter registration information for commercial purposes is a misdemeanor. While the cost entry level to obtain a statewide voter list is low, only about $30, the penalty for abuse is substantial, a fine of $0.50 per name on the list. With 15 million registered users in California, the potential fine is a whopping $7.5 million — assuming the offender is caught. As a less-than-adequate protection, states often seed the voter list with decoy names that work as a tracking device.
Overall, states are gathering more data from voters than may be necessary for elections administration. Sensitive data, such as voters’ birthplaces and exact dates of birth, should be removed from voter lists. All states that collect Social Security numbers should comply with the Federal Privacy Act and notify voters of the reason for collecting this data. Voter registration forms should explain which fields are optional and which ones are required. The standards that have come to codify the handling of personal information in Internet and other commercial transactions should apply to voter registration data, including allowing voters to change their preferences for whom they permit to use their data and how they want to be contacted, or if they want to be contacted at all.
In the meantime, I plan to re-register to vote, supplying only the minimum information required. If nothing else, maybe it will stem the flow of political advertisements.