The push by President Donald Trump‘s anti-voter-fraud commission to get huge amounts of voter data from across the nation could have unintended consequences in Connecticut: more state protections for registered voters’ personal information.
Connecticut lawmakers and election officials say they will renew efforts to restrict public release of at least some of the personal information on voters that is now on file with the state.
Many Connecticut voters are unaware that their dates of birth, home addresses, party affiliation, recent history of going to the polls and sometimes even telephone numbers are public information and easily available on the Internet.
“It’s basically a ready-made, identification-theft kit,” said Dan Barrett, legal director of the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many states do have broad restrictions on how voter data can be released or used, but Connecticut only protects the addresses of law enforcement personnel and some types of crime victims.
Connecticut’s voter rolls are already available on websites that include Connvoters.com, which bills itself as a genealogy site, and Aristotle.com, a political consulting site that offers for fees to provide political candidates “the most comprehensive voter data, consumer files and donor files anywhere.”
Past efforts to prevent the public release of data like the birth dates of registered voters have run into serious resistance in the General Assembly. Freedom-of-information advocates, political party activists, municipal election officials, and even the Office of the State Librarian have warned of major hassles, costs and confusion if dates of birth are required to be erased from existing public records or prevented from release.
But the requests by Trump’s special Kobach Commission for all available public voter information held by the states has generated major controversy and renewed interest in protecting voters’ personal data.
“I think people are unnerved about the amount of information that can be made public simply by being registered to vote,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, a Danielson Democrat and co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. She said preventing the release of voters’ dates of birth “might be a good place to start” providing more voter privacy protection.
Trump and the vice chairman of the panel, Kris Kobach, have repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that millions of people have voting illegally in U.S. elections. Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and many other top state election officials across the nation say there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.
Merrill said she is suspicious of the purpose of the commission and doesn’t want to cooperate at all with its requests. She said her office has received hundreds of emails from voters worried their information will become part of some national database controlled by the Trump administration.
The ACLU and other groups have labeled the Kobach panel “Trump’s voter suppression commission” and warn that the intent is to gather information in an attempt to disenfranchise millions of minority voters.
But under current Connecticut law, Merrill would be required to release the state’s entire registered voter roll to the Trump commission if it makes a formal application and pays a $300 fee.
Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, made an unsuccessful attempt in 2016 to bar Connecticut voter information being put up on the internet. He said there was “very little interest” in the legislature for that proposal, but Doyle said lawmakers should “preserve as much [voter privacy] as we can.”
“I would hope we wouldn’t give them anything,” Doyle said of the Kobach Commission.
In 2016, Merrill’s office proposed legislation to require voters’ dates of birth to be deleted from state voter rolls requested by individuals and organizations under Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act. That proposal drew strong opposition from a variety of different groups.
Merrill told lawmakers her proposal came in response to a private individual in New Hampshire who put up Connecticut’s voter roll on a website.
“When people stumble across their personal information on the internet it can cause distress and make them feel exposed and vulnerable,” she said during testimony at a public hearing.
The owner of the website, Tom Alciere, says in a statement on one of his pages that, “The mission of this website is to bring unrestricted, public information to the public, at no charge.” But Alciere does provide a method by which individuals can request their personal information be deleted from the site.
Officials of the state Freedom of Information Commission testified in 2016 that dates of birth “are necessary to determine voter eligibility and to guard against voter fraud.” The state Elections Enforcement Commission also raised questions about how restricting dates of birth would impact the state voter registration system and public agencies that use the system.
Kendall Wiggin, Connecticut’s state librarian, warned that his office has “approximately 365 cubic feet of election records” that include dates of birth in hundreds of years of state archives. Wiggin said redacting dates of birth before giving researchers access to those records would be a massive, complex and costly process.
But testimony submitted by the Connecticut Town Clerks Association supported the idea of barring public release of birth dates.
Barrett believes one reason why proposals to restrict access to voter information have been routinely rejected by the legislature is that politicians and political parties see such data a valuable tools for candidates to contact and woo voters.
“In our view, a person’s privacy is more important than political parties being able to reach voters,” Barrett said, adding that candidates and parties have lots of other ways to reach out to voters.
Barrett said government officials need to have access to dates of birth, addresses and party affiliation to ensure that the election system is working properly and to prevent voter fraud. “But is it necessary for any old person on the street to be able to access this voter information?” Barrett asked. “We don’t think so.”