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.