Sale of Voter Registration Data Raises Questions, Objections

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    NEWSLETTERS

    You might think your information is safe when you register to vote, but think again. (Published Thursday, Jun 27, 2013)

    If you're a registered voter, are you aware that what you write on your registration form is publicly available?

    "Commercial" interests are barred from that data.

    But all sorts of other people have legal access to it.

    A lot of people think only government agencies can access voter registration information – the courts, for instance, to summon you for jury duty.

    But it can be purchased for purposes such as scholarly and journalistic research, and for use in "elections" and "politics".

    Buyers are only a phone call away from you.

    "So I received a phone call and was invited to be paid to share my political opinions,” says Jennifer Armour, a voter registered in the city of San Diego. “And I was told the reason I was being called was because of information that was tied to my voter registration."

    Armour was being solicited for a political focus group -- under state law, an appropriate cause to which county voter registrars can sell voter registration information ‘at cost'.

    But the telemarketer, whose phone number Armour eventually tracked to a local research firm, wouldn't tell her who was behind the request.

    And that just didn't seem 'cricket'.

    "The marketing firm that represents a political organization is not the political organization themselves,” Armour said in an interview Thursday. “So that is another entity that was given my information that maybe should not have."

    She filed a complaint with the registrar's office, where voter forms say your information is protected against "commercial use”.

    Purchasers of that data have to fill out forms certifying they're qualified to receive it.

    But 'gray areas' seem to abound.

    "Those definitions are going to be defined and investigated by the Secretary of State's office to determine whether or not it meets the letter of the law," says Michael Vu, San Diego County’s registrar of voters, whose office handled about 160 voter data requests last year.

    Voters need not disclose their phone numbers on the registration forms, so that's one way to ward off calls from telemarketers.

    Vu says the last four digits of Social Security numbers and drivers' licenses are never publicly revealed.

    Armour offers this suggestion: "If they just give out a list that has however many voters that are registered in San Diego County and say 'Have fun looking for the people you're interested in contacting' -- even that would make me feel a little bit better."

    Changes like that are the province of the Legislature, and no doubt there'd be pushback from various interest groups -- especially the folks who send you those election-cycle mailers.

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