OPEN BOOK: NYCBOE Puts Its Entire Voter List Online

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New York City’s Board of Elections has put its entire voter list online – highlighting the fact that voter lists are public records but doing so in a way that has some critics nervous about privacy. The New York Times has more:

Are you registered to vote in New York City? If so, then anyone can find out your party affiliation, full name and home address down to the apartment number — all with a few mouse clicks.

The city’s Board of Elections recently posted its voter enrollment lists to its website, a massive upload of thousands of pages, covered in tiny all-caps letters, that offer a district-by-district breakdown of voters sorted by party and street name — one line for each of the 4.6 million active registered voters.

City officials said that the information was already public record, and that a new forum did not change its availability. But the move raised alarms among privacy advocates and some election experts, who said the ease of access could play into the hands of mail scammers, internet trolls and domestic violence perpetrators.

It even drew oblique criticism from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose office emphasized the need for digital privacy.

“The New York City Board of Elections’ decision was theirs to make, but we believe sensitive voter information should always be protected,” Caitlin Girouard, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo, said in a statement. She added, “When it comes to the current administration, we need to be extra vigilant to ensure New Yorkers’ information isn’t being used for politically motivated ill will.”

The NYCBOE’s move is drawing criticism from some who say that public records like voter lists shouldn’t be as ready searchable as they are here:

In New York, anyone can request comprehensive voter data from the state or local Board of Elections, which usually provides the information on a compact disc. Political parties have long used the information to target their fliers, phone calls and door-knocking campaigns.

But Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy advocacy group, said there was a “big difference” between information that is technically public as a matter of law, and functionally and immediately available to anybody who wants it.

“It would be incredibly easy for anyone and everyone to simply take those documents and use them for whatever purposes they want,” he said.

Voter lists are public records – which often raises hackles, and is starting to draw scrutiny:

The city’s decision, which was reported by WNYC, comes amid the growing availability of data, election-related or otherwise, and growing pushes to contain it. Several local or state parties, including in New York, have angered voters by sending out fliers warning them that their voting history is public record. Apps now enable voters to see which of their friends and acquaintances voted in the last election and to prod them to do so again — or shame them if they do not.ate. Fifteen states did not comply. (New York did, though Mr. Cuomo said at the time that the state would not.)

North Carolina and Ohio make their data freely available for download on public sites, according to Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who runs The Election Project, which tracks election law across the country. Washington, D.C., published its voter rolls online in 2016, but after backlash, the law was revised and the elections board there discontinued the practice.

Most jurisdictions will release voter data only after a request from someone who must give their name and contact information, or will give the data only to certain groups, such as political parties. Some charge a nominal fee.

That may be a low bar for access, but it is an important one nonetheless, said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, an assistant professor at Fordham University who studies digital media and political campaigns.

“Then you can ask for somebody’s email, and it provides some record of them doing this that we might think would stop misuse,” she said.

In this case, NYCBOE put the files online primarily because it lacked the time and money to reprint hard copy lists in time to comply with a new state law – and there is no decision on whether it will continue, the the director disagrees that the practice changes the overall availability of the information therein:

New York City began posting the files online in February, after the State Legislature passed a sweeping package of election reforms that included moving the state primary election date up to June, to coincide with the federal one.

That also changed the date by which state law required the city Board of Elections to publish voter enrollment books, and the city did not have enough time to get books printed by the new deadline, according to Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director.

Uploading the files digitally was intended to be a stopgap measure while the books were printed, in case candidates were trying to canvass in the meantime, Mr. Ryan said.
“It’s done as a one-off to meet this particular deadline,” he said. “We will address this matter with the commissioners to determine if it’s something that we will continue moving forward.”

The practice could lead to new efforts to protect voter information in special cases – or just to protect voters’ sense of privacy generally:

The information posted online does not include voters’ gender, date of birth, phone number or email address, though that information is available for a fee if requested.

“You as a citizen or a group could come to our office, request an entire voter list, and get much more information than this,” Mr. Ryan said. “I don’t share the criticism that it makes a difference where you make it available.”

The information online is organized by State Assembly district, county and political party affiliation. It is divided into disparate PDF files, but it is searchable…

Survivors of domestic violence can ask to be removed from public voter rolls. Still, that requires proof, in the form of a court order in the county where the survivor is registered to vote. That can be prohibitive, Professor Baldwin-Philippi said.

John Conklin, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said the state did not have plans to post its voter rolls online. No other jurisdiction in the state has done so, he added.

“I would say it’s unusual what New York City did, but I take it at face value that they did it for a good reason,” he said.

Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Long Island who heads his chamber’s elections committee, defended the city’s decision, though he acknowledged that many people do not know their voting data is public record.

And given heightened anxiety about personal privacy in the digital age, he said, the state could consider expanding the reasons for which voters could ask to be removed from the public rolls.

“It’s a new world, and we may have to look at providing protections for other members of the public to be able to guard their privacy for some good reason,” he said.

I’m not sure that this move by NYCBOE is as significant as critics would argue – but it’s definitely true that the files are more widely available and searchable than they were before. Whether that’s enough for policymakers to make a change – and provide the funds for the City and other local offices to manage their voter lists consistent with state law – remains to be seen. Stay tuned …

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