Why is voter registration data public?

Balancing transparency and privacy to secure democracy

Public voter registration data is critical to democracy in the United States. In nearly every state, a public file contains essential information about voters’ eligibility (address, age, districts, precinct, and polling location). Beyond their value to campaigns and others promoting voter participation, these files are used by groups outside of the government (journalists, scholars, advocates, and election integrity experts like VoteShield) to independently verify the rights of voters, and the integrity of US elections.

Unfortunately, these public records can sometimes be abused by bad actors; and in the information age the erosion of privacy is a legitimate concern. So as both election integrity and privacy questions have moved to the forefront, it’s important that we ensure every state invests in policies that aid in transparency, while still respecting the safety of voters and being mindful of how this data can be abused by those peddling in disinformation.

In this article, we’ll attempt to find a balance between these competing polarities.

It’s important for democracy to keep databases publicly available

Voter registration data should be available to the public for these key reasons: 

  • Election Integrity  – Election integrity is the main point of voter registration; so it is essential for those outside the government to have some means of validating that the government is doing its job. A recurring critique in countries that have struggled with authoritarianism (like Zimbabwe) is that the ruling government does not make the voter file available. Beyond limiting the opposition’s ability to campaign, if data isn’t publicly accessible, no one outside the government can be certain the voter rolls are complete and accurate. Hiding this data from Zimbabweans further reduces trust in their government. Likewise, obfuscating this data in the US would undermine not just the integrity of elections, but also the public’s trust in them.

  • Election Security – Hacking a voter database (defined in this case as unauthorized adding, deleting, or altering records) could change the outcome of an election by  preventing large numbers of citizens from voting, or allowing others to vote repeatedly. Public visibility into our voter rolls can serve as an effective deterrent to foreign adversaries, because it makes it harder for bad actors to manipulate the data without detection.

  • Voting Rights – In a country with a long history of voter suppression, it is important to have a way to check that the state is not leveraging its own power to delegitimize minority communities. Publicly available voter rolls can help verify that election officials are complying with both state voter protection laws, and federal laws like the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), and HAVA (Help America Vote Act).

  • Campaign Equity: Public voter lists are a crucial tool that candidates use to communicate with their potential constituents. Limiting access to this information would provide a huge advantage to incumbent or tenured candidates who have existing contact bases, and disadvantage challengers or candidates who are newer to politics.

For these (and many other) reasons, voter registration data must be readily available to the public.

States must balance the need for accountability with respect for voters’ safety and privacy:

Voters have an interest in maintaining their own safety and privacy, so the need for public accountability should come with some safeguards:

  • Limiting sensitive fields: For the rest of their voters, states should continue to limit which fields they make publicly accessible as well. Voters’ emails, phone numbers, and full birth dates should not be included in the public version of the voter file. Such data can be abused by telemarketers, phishers, and identity thieves. So while these fields do offer some benefits to campaigns and election integrity activists, they don’t outweigh the downsides to individual voters.

  • Fingerprinting: States can “fingerprint” each copy of the voter file they provide, so each copy can be traced back to whomever requested it. If the requestor misuses the file, they can be readily identified.

  • Penalties: States can increase penalties for the misuse of their voter data for commercial or criminal purposes.

  • Limiting Mass Challenges: States can limit the use of “mass challenges” to voters’ registrations (as Michigan does), and can create penalties for bad-faith abuse of challenges to disenfranchise voters (as Florida does). To learn more about the rise of mass voter challenges, see our report.

These measures can go a long way toward reigning in abuses, without significantly undermining the overall transparency of this public data.

Why do we have voter registration in the first place?

The purpose of voter registration is to ensure each eligible voter (18+, citizen, etc.) can vote, but only once, and only in their proper jurisdiction (a voter in Pennsylvania, for example, should not be able to vote in a Georgia senate election). The United States is one of the only democracies in the world that puts the responsibility on the citizen to register; and then also to continuously maintain an accurate voter registration record.

Unfortunately, there are states that excessively limit access to voter data, without necessarily significantly improving the privacy of voters:

Some key battleground states, like Virginia and New Hampshire, limit access of voter data to only campaigns, PACs, and parties; or make them only available for “political and GOTV purposes.” And others, like Minnesota and Maryland, only allow access of voter data to in-state registered voters. These sorts of limits ignore the essential role that voter data plays in validating the integrity of elections, and can hamper scholarly research that might otherwise improve the quality of elections.

Other states charge exorbitant fees for access to their voter data, making election oversight or even campaigning accessible only to well-funded entities. The most expensive of these states is Alabama, at over $37,000 per file. While this money can help fund woefully under-resourced elections, state legislators should instead adequately fund their elections outright instead of relying on prohibitively expensive voter files as a key source of revenue.

Finally, some states restrict data by simply not producing it with any regular cadence. Though changes to voter registration records occur on a daily basis, some states only update their publicly available file once a month (Missouri) or even once a quarter (New Hampshire). In the course of an election, one month can be an eternity. An essential aspect of election integrity is “longitudinal data” – in other words, how these records change over time.

What are the other benefits of public voter data?

Beyond the application of election integrity, other groups that request these voter files include campaigns, academic researchers, and civic engagement groups.

By studying voter files, experts can better understand voter preferences, voter trends, and the relative quality of election administration across jurisdictions. Limiting their access could negatively impact turnout, reduce our shared understanding of US politics, and hinder attempts to improve the excellence of US elections.

States seeking greater transparency in their elections can:

  • Make their statewide voter file freely accessible online, to registered users (like Nevada)
  • Provide a daily updated voter file upon request (like Nevada)
  • Provide “reason codes” that explain why a particular record was inactivated or canceled; these might include “deceased,” “moved out of state,” etc, (like Arizona, Georgia, and Colorado)
  • Provide an “inactivation date” field so that outside organizations can ensure that inactive records are not removed prematurely (per the NVRA’s waiting period), but are also removed in a timely fashion when appropriate.
  • Regularly review their data to ensure that good-faith mistakes, ambiguous codes, and incomplete information do not provide fodder for those seeking to peddle in disinformation.

As you can see even in this high-level overview, the nuances of public voter data policies can become quite complicated. However with some effort, these competing equities can be balanced in the service of a better democracy.

About the Author

Quinn Raymond

Voteshield Co-Founder & Policy Strategist

Quinn Raymond manages VoteShield, which he co-founded in 2017. He works closely with election administrators, computer scientists, and data analysts to ensure the integrity of voter registration and absentee ballot data across the nation.

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