Secretary of the State Denise Merrill Wednesday called for legislation that ensures voters’ privacy and reduces the risk of identity fraud by limiting the amount of voter file data that is available to the public.
“When people register to vote they should only be concerned with their voting and which candidates they’re going to choose,” Merrill said at a press conference on Wednesday, “and they shouldn’t have to worry that their personal information is being compromised and that’s what they’re worried about.”
Following the request of the state’s voter files from the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which has since been disbanded, Merrill said she received calls from thousands of concerned residents. Merrill said she had “never received as much mail and email and phone calls as I did about this issue.”
“When that commission asked us to send our voter file, it got a lot of notoriety and a lot of publicity,” Merrill said. “At the time, what became obvious to Connecticut residents was that when you register to vote, the information on that voter file becomes public information.”
Citing voters’ concerns, Merrill said her proposal calls for blocking a voter’s birthdate from the voter file and instead only disclosing a birth year. It also would allow voters to request that their information be withheld entirely “if they believe it is necessary for their own safety or their family’s safety.”
The birthdate will still be required to register to vote, but it won’t be disclosed in the voter file. At least 22 other states have restrictions on providing a voters date of birth, Merrill said.
“I think mostly [voters] are worried about identity theft,” Merrill said. “And I think now people are aware that the voter file is another one of those data bases that is open to the public.”
In Connecticut, a copy of the complete voter file database currently costs about $300 and is available to anyone. The voter file includes voters’ first and last names, their full street address, birthdate, phone number and more than a dozen other data points.
What is currently disclosed in the voter file has not been altered in many years, but Merrill said that with the state government now holding and maintaining “these huge data sets” the handling of them “has to be slightly different than what we’ve done in the past.”
Additionally, Merrill’s proposal calls for limiting who can access or purchase the complete voter file list. Under the proposal, the voter file would only be made available to political party committees, candidates, journalists, academic researchers and for governmental functions, including the jury commissioner.
Merrill said at least 11 states do not provide the voter file to the general public and that another nine restrict the use of the file to only political or election use. In Maine, the voter list is priced at $30,000 and in Alabama the state charges by name, Merrill said.
The limited access would then eliminate the use of the voter file for personal, private or commercial use, Merrill said. It’s something most states already do, she said.
“We want to stop this,” Merrill said. To prevent the sharing of the voter file from those who can access the list, Merrill said “you make it illegal and you punish it with penalties. … We will be able to ask people what their intention is to use the list.”
The proposal is currently with the legislature’s government administration and elections committee.
“Connecticut shouldn’t require people to give up their privacy in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote, but this proposal falls short of addressing that issue,” David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut said.
McGuire said the proposal has a narrow definition of who counts as a journalist, raising “serious First Amendment concerns.”
“We encourage the legislature to improve upon this well-intentioned proposal by adopting stronger privacy provisions, balanced with better First Amendment protections, to safeguard voters’ privacy while upholding freedom of the press,” McGuire said.
“In this case, I’m really on the side of the public,” Merrill said. “I think they shouldn’t have to worry that when they register to vote that this is going to be some sort of breach of their private data, and that’s why I’m proposing this.”