Editorial: Online voter data - transparency vs. privacy concerns - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Online voter data – transparency vs. privacy concerns

The Voter Reference Foundation says its searchable online voter database is “to ensure fair elections by providing voters with full transparency and easy access to voting records, which historically have been difficult to obtain.”

That’s true. You’ve pretty much had to be a political insider to access voter registration lists, which required a written request for the information and a signed affidavit it would only be used for government/election purposes.

But not anymore. If you were registered to vote in New Mexico in April 2021, your name, address, birth year, party affiliation, registration status and date and voting precinct are a few keystrokes away, online at VoteRef.com — as well as whether you voted in the 2020 general election. (The online records do not say for which candidates people voted.)

For critics, that’s way too much personal information aggregated in one spot. And N.M.’s election regulators say it’s already having a chilling effect on voter engagement.

But defenders say it’s public information, much of which has been available in phonebooks and property tax records. Albuquerque-based U.S. District Court Judge James Browning ruled last month in favor of VRF, which created VoteRef.com, a website with searchable access to voter registration records by name and street addresses.

“We believe the people, in effect, own this data and have a legal right to see it in an understandable and transparent form,” states the VRF website. “Let freedom ring.”

After VoteRef.com‘s publication of N.M. voter records in March, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver made a criminal referral to the state Attorney General’s Office. The foundation sued the state in federal court alleging violations of due process and free speech guarantees, and when Browning ruled in its favor last week it reposted New Mexico data. Browning said N.M. law doesn’t prohibit any organization from posting voter data online and VoteRef.com is likely to prevail in its federal claim. His decision doesn’t apply to those in confidential address programs aimed at protecting domestic violence and stalking victims.

Several states, like New Mexico, limit the use of voter registration lists. N.M. law doesn’t prohibit commercial purposes but requires a written request, a signed affidavit it will only be used for “governmental or election and election campaign purposes” and a minimum $15 fee.

Colorado and Texas laws allow anyone to request a copy of the voter list; Arizona allows the public inspection at local election offices while political parties are provided lists; Utah limits the information to qualified persons or those who agree to confidentiality measures. (And so all the aforementioned personal information is on the VRF website for Colorado; Texas does not provide party affiliation; and Arizona and Utah are among the 20 states that have not provided information to the group, though the site optimistically says “eventually, all 50 states will be searchable.”)

Alex Curtas, spokesman for the N.M. Secretary of State’s Office, said putting voter info online could have a chilling effect on voter participation; about a half dozen New Mexicans have called since Browning’s ruling to cancel their registrations. (Their information remains online if they were registered in New Mexico on April 15, 2021.)

Curtas has a valid point. In an age of identity theft, voters may indeed be less likely to participate in elections when they learn their address and birth year will go online. And one does not have to be a stalking victim to be concerned about anyone with a smartphone or keyboard getting their address; a guy in his basement can now stalk co-workers with little effort. Remember phonebooks and property tax records just list the head of household, and back in the day when landlines prevailed you could have an unlisted phone number or hold back your street address.

Public records should be just that — public. But privacy concerns in the internet age are very real. How accessible do we want to make such information? Legislators should revisit our voter data accessibility law and debate the privacy concerns vs. transparency, then craft a law that best represents the interest of New Mexicans.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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