(Not) Voting with Their Feet: electionlineWeekly on Voters Asking to Un-Register

[Image via myvaastu]

electionlineWeekly’s Mindy Moretti has a must-read piece this week on a troubling new phenomenon: voters asking to cancel their voter registrations because of personal privacy concerns related to the federal request to share voter rolls:

The calls to the Denver Elections office began on July 5, the day after the nation celebrated the 241st anniversary of its independence. Right away the office realized the magnitude of what was happening.

Before the week was over the office had seen more than a twenty-fold increase in voters seeking to withdraw their voter registration.

“To see more people withdrawing in a day than new registrations is certainly something that I never expected to see in my over-12-years of administering elections,” Amber McReynolds, director of elections in Denver recently told NPR. [Amber also has an “Our Say” on Denver’s experience in this week’s newsletter.]

Blue state, red state, swing state, elections officials nationwide have been fielding phone calls and emails — as well as questions via social media — from voters concerned about the recent request for voter data from the President’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

In Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, County Clerk Kara Clark Summers said her office has received several calls regarding the data request. She said citizens are concerned about their sensitive information being distributed and that how they voted may lead to junk mail and harassing phone calls.

“A few registered voters have inquired about being removed from the voter registration rolls,” Clark Summers said. “We are advising them of Missouri laws. We have also advised them to contact the Missouri secretary of state’s office if they have questions about what information was released by state.”

Clark Summers said that none of the people her office has spoken with chose to unregister after finding out more information.

“The calls take time away from our daily business, but it’s important to me and our staff that our voters get correct and informed information regarding their voter registration,” Clark Summers said.

King County, Washington has received a handful of calls from voters expressing concerns about their voter data being released. Kafia Hosh, spokeswoman for the county elections department said those calls are being referred to the secretary of state’s office.

“We have received a small number of requests from voters to cancel their voter registration,” Hosh said. “We normally explain the process on cancelling their registration and also let them know about what data is publically available. After this information, it’s up to the voter if they want to stay registered. We give them a better understanding of the process to allow them to make an informed decision on if they want to stay registered.”

Karen Loschiavo, spokeswoman for Maricopa County, Arizona said although they have received many inquiries about the data request, they have not seen a spike in people unregistering. Loschiavo said that once people understand what information is being released their fears seem to be allayed. She noted that most people seem concerned that who they voted for will be made public information.

Loschaivo pointed out that the office has also received some calls supporting the request.

“We have received a high volume of people reaching out about the data request. The majority have been people demanding their data remain private,” Loschiavo said. “We had just three people that I know of that asked us to comply.” 

Most of the calls the elections division in Black Hawk County, Iowa has received have been more curiosity than anything else, said Amy Jensen.

“They haven’t been angry or rude, they just think it’s not right to send their personal information,” Jensen said. “One lady mentioned the information was being sent via email, so not very safe. I’m actually surprised we haven’t received more visits/phone calls.”

Jensen said one person has walked into the office to cancel their registration and another has requested information about unregistering be sent to her via the mail.

Back in Missouri, St. Louis County Democratic Director of Elections Eric Frey said they’ve received about a dozen calls, but doesn’t think that anyone has actually followed through with un-registering yet.

“Interestingly one of our county circuit judges called me and asked to be ‘taken off the list.’ After I explained everything mentioned above and that circuit judges must be registered voters in order to have their job, she backed off of that request as well,” Frey said.

A recent Marist/NPR/PBS poll found that only 35 percent of registered voters in the country feel that elections are fair. While the poll was conducted before the data request was made, some elections officials see the writing on the wall about voter confidence in the process.

“This whole debacle is causing an unnecessary politicization of elections administration which is not warranted or appropriate. Elections Officials work hard to instill voter confidence and this issue is having the opposite effect,” said Brian Corley, Pasco County, Florida supervisor of elections.

Corley’s office has received more than 50 calls/visits to their offices and emails about the data request. He said the commonality of the voter outreach has been concern, frustration, anger, et cetera over personal information being sent.

“The issue has caused an awakening among voters to just how much of their personal information is publicly available online,” Corley said.

Kevin Hall, communications director for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate echoed that sentiment. He said the secretary’s office has received a fair amount of calls and emails, but that it appears a major part of the problem is people understanding what the commission is requesting.

“A major part of the problem is that people do not understand that a lot of the data being requested is already publicly available,” Hall said. “Many expressed concerns that information regarding who they voted for in an election would be released. Of course, we don’t have that information and would never release it if we did.”

In Florida, the number of Pasco voters who have actually unregistered has been low.

“For the voters who will personally speak to me, I’ve convinced all but one to remain an active voter, which is ironically enough rewarding but also saddening to have make such a plea!” Corley said.

While no one can predict what impact the data request may have on registration numbers and turnout in 2018, Corley does see at least one upside to the request in Florida.

“Being an eternal optimist, I’m pleased to relay that an upside to the myriad of concerned voters contacting me has led to a chance to speak to the merits of ERIC & this can only help our legislative endeavors next session,” he said.

As Pasco’s Corley notes, the mounting controversy over the new presidential commission (and the related data request, which is currently on hold due to litigation) is highlighting the issue of personal privacy for voters – unfortunately, in a way that is leading some of them to seek the exits. I applaud election officials for both taking the time to assure their voters but also for recognizing that the privacy of information in voters’ records is an important issue. As I’ve mentioned before, the threat of hacking isn’t just the risk of altered outcomes, it’s also the risk of compromised personal information of voters which could be used to take of advantage of them in other ways. That’s the risk to which voters are reacting.

Thanks as always to Mindy for sharing this story (even though, as I told her, I hate the topic) and thanks especially to the election officials out there for doing all you can to protect voters in a time of controversy and frustration. We need you and we’re glad you’re there.

Hoping (if not necessarily expecting, because 2017) to have some better election news to share soon; until then, stay tuned …

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