Americans place a premium on privacy.
People prefer to not talk about their salary in public. Women prefer to not divulge their age, and polite men do not even ask. In many cases, Americans will not discuss in public to which faith community they belong, much less the particular beliefs they hold with regard to that community.
And with the growing incidence of identity theft, we have become even more alert to our potential vulnerability if information about us falls into the wrong hands.
It is ironic then that one activity in which many of us engage as the quintessential symbol of patriotism and our identity as proud Americans and Alabamians is actually part of a system by which our personal information is easily compromised.
Voting is an activity that we often think is subject to great deference to privacy. However, the privacy of one’s personal information that is used to determine eligibility to vote is lacking basic protection in Alabama.
In Alabama, for most us voters, our personal information is for sale. Name. Address. Date of birth. Place of birth. Gender. Race. Phone number. And election officials are not even waiting for the highest bidder (although the price for purchasing voter’s data can be quite expensive).
The general public has complete access to our demographic information, with the exceptions of the last four digits of our social security number and our driver’s license number, which are protected under state and federal laws. But the remaining information is readily available for anyone willing to ante up the asking price.
There are exceptions, though. Some voters’ personal information is protected:
- Personal information is protected if a voter is or has been a victim of domestic violence – or a voter has legal custody of a minor who has been a victim of domestic violence.
- Personal information is also protected if a domestic violence order is or has been issued by a judge or magistrate to restrain access to the registered voter or a minor who is in the legal custody of the registered voter.
- And, lastly, personal information is protected if the voter is a federal or state prosecutor; federal, state, probate, or municipal judge; legislator; or law enforcement officer.
The exceptions for people who fall into these categories are important and serve a compelling public interest. However, voters who do not fall into one or more of these categories may have a valid and compelling reason for wanting their personal information protected as well.
Given that stalking, identity theft, and other forms of victimization are facilitated by knowing the whereabouts of individuals or other personal information, the statewide voter registration database provides a wealth of information for targeting prospective victims.
The statewide voter list easily translates into valuable intelligence for someone seeking a preferred target – whether the target is a hapless innocent chosen at random for identity theft or a woman who may be attempting to evade a stalker or abuser.
In a society that values one’s privacy, participating in our democratic system is to an incredible degree not private, thus creating a disincentive to participation for those people who want — or need — to secure their privacy. During my years of service in the Elections Division at the Secretary of State’s office, I answered many calls from victimized women – or advocates who help victimized women – concerned for their safety if they registered to vote and their residential address became subject to sell.
While there are many legitimate uses for a voter’s personal information, such as voter outreach and education by political parties, candidates, and civic groups, voters should have the right to control whether their information can be used for purposes other than administering voter registration and elections.
Some voters may never think twice or feel a need to care about where the information they place on a voter registration application may land. They may even like being accessible to receive brochures and other materials from candidates and political committees seeking to sway their vote and political party allegiance.
For other voters, though, this lack of control can lead to self-imposed disenfranchisement. This type of disenfranchisement is not effectuated by literacy tests, or poll taxes, or disqualifying felony status, but by the simple desire — or necessity — of someone to maintain an existence that is not publicized.
With the Federal Communications Commission’s and the Alabama Public Service Commission’s “do not call” registries, we have been able to gain some control over our phone lines and protect ourselves from invasion in the privacy through our phone lines (although, as those pushing so-called “car warranties” show us, our phones are still vulnerable to ne’er-do-wells). Federal law has also provided “opt-out” tools that give us the right to tell businesses to not share our personal information with other businesses.
These types of protections should be extended to the information that is contained in our voter registration file. We, as voters, should be able to tell election officials to not release our personal information if we prefer to keep the data private. The Alabama Legislature should afford all of us this option.
Election officials should have the right to use our personal information only for the purposes of determining our eligibility to vote. No one else should have a claim on that information without our permission, nor should it be available for the convenience of those who wish to catalog or study or manipulate or exploit us – unless we choose to allow them into our personal lives.