Balancing Voters' Privacy and Access Rights

Balancing Voters' Privacy and Access Rights

by / September 30, 1995
Oct 1995

By Jim Warren The most crucial component of effective political advocacy is access to completely current voters' information. Thus, in last month's column, we urged that such information be made most-easily available to all advocates, by placing copies on the computer nets without charge - possible at very little cost to registrars, except for those that are profiting from peddling voter data to the well-funded. Recognizing that online access to voter data has serious privacy issues, we offered polite platitudes and vague suggestions for balancing privacy rights with the need of the body politic to communicate with itself. This column addresses the privacy principles, and offers practical protection mechanisms.

The Information Privacy Principle Privacy advocates espouse this policy: "Personal information collected for one purpose shall not be used for another purpose without the prior permission of the person whom it concerns" - especially applicable when personal information is collected by government force, or as a prerequisite to receiving full benefits of citizenship - including the right to vote. Ignoring the fact that law enforcement, process servers, welfare workers and perhaps others are authorized to use voter registration files to check on citizens - who certainly did not register for that purpose - the question remains: Does disclosing voter information to political advocates violate this privacy principle?

Why People Register Citizens "register to vote" hoping to impose their will on their fellow citizens and community - local, state or national. Most accurately: People register to vote in order to be empowered participants in the process of community governance - and an absolutely crucial component of that process is that those who may be affected by such governance have fair opportunity for discourse and advocacy with those community decision-makers, the voters. Thus, voter files should be open to political advocates - as they are open to all professional politicians who can afford the costs of obtaining copies. True, this means that those who wish to impose their will on others will suffer from unwanted junk mail, intruding precinct walkers and irritating campaign callers. And those who wish to remain hidden for their convenience or safety - e.g. battered spouses or child-support scofflaws - will have to forego the franchise or risk disclosure.

Implementing Equal Access To implement the least-costly, most-useful equal access to voter data, any time, from any place, make it available without charge via the public computer networks. Do without charge to registrars by using cooperating public- and private-sector public file servers - those willing to offer local dial-up modem access for the registrar to use, and who will implement appropriate access restraints (see below). Script the registrar's computer to automatically call each cooperating public file server; log in with the password provided to the registrar by the file server's owner; update the file server's copies of voter files; then logout, disconnect and dial-in to the next cooperating server. Each file server is responsible for protecting the uploaded copies from modification by anyone except the Registrar, just as such file servers already do with tens of thousands of public files.

Deterring Improper Use Currently, voter files are often exploited for prohibited personal and business uses, and online public access will provide tempting targets for abuse. However, online access can facilitate mechanisms for deterring abuse - probably much more effective ones than those that registrars currently use, since these empower voters to aid in their own protection: Each file server must implement an automated question-and-answer process that must be completed prior to granting access to voter files. It should request complete identifying and contact information about the requester; automatically verify that information to the extent practical (e.g., via requester's voter registration, online phone directories, UNIX "finger" queries, etc.), and record all details in a protected public archive open to public review - allowing potent self-policing by voters. I.e., just as voters must not remain hidden, so also must those who request voter information be disclosed! Details of requests for batches of voter information based on selection criteria - e.g., all Democrats registered in the last six months in a specified ZIP-code range - would be included with the requester's id data. The independent, cooperating file servers might also automatically "seed" each such request with inconsequential name and address variations, unique to the request, that allow cooperating recipients to identify the origin of mailing pieces and phone calls coming from that list - a standard process used by commercial list purveyors to identify and prosecute prohibited use. When data about individual voters is requested - e.g., suspicious citizens independently checking allegations about "graveyard," out-of-district or otherwise-unqualified registrants - the requester data should include the names of each voter requested, and complete details of the request should be automatically e-mailed by the file server to each named voter or their designee, for voters who provide such e-mail addresses. There should be prominent notice to requesters that list-seeding and voter notification may be used. Democracy and freedom required that all of those who seek political power - both advocates and voters - must remain identifiable to those whom their decisions will impact. Jim Warren is serving on the California Secretary of State's Electronic Filings Advisory Panel. The panel is mandated to submit recommendations to the state Legislature by the end of the year on how to implement computerized filing of campaign financial disclosures and lobbyist reports, and provide public access to them. He wrote the original generic plan for low-cost implementation. Jim Warren received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award and the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in its first year. He founded the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conferences and InfoWorld magazine. Warren lives near Woodside, Calif. E-mail: