Trump’s request for voter info prompts Alaskans’ privacy concerns

What’s public and what’s not in Alaskans’ voter database

Donald Trump wants it. So does the Russian intelligence service.

 

After waiting one day, the Juneau Empire paid $21 to get most of it.

In the last week of June, the Trump Administration requested that all 50 states provide copies of their voter databases to a new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The president’s stated goal was to deter voter fraud. Trump opponents said his secret goal was to deter political opponents.

They sued, and Trump’s request was put on hold.

Alaska state law mandates that some voter information be kept confidential. When the Trump commission requested Alaskans’ Social Security numbers, Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska Division of Elections were prepared to say “no.”

But even with those restrictions in place, the Alaska Division of Elections is still allowed to say who votes and how often.

“I think Alaskans would be surprised to learn what information the government gives out,” said Casey Reynolds, a spokesman for the Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The national branch of the ACLU was one of the organizations that sued to stop the Trump request.

What’s in, what’s out

Each state has its own guidelines, and Alaska’s voter information falls into roughly three categories. The first category includes things the state doesn’t collect. For example, no one knows who you voted for. Your ballot is unknown to anyone but yourself. There’s no record linking your ballot to you.

The second category includes things the state collects but keeps confidential. That includes your driver’s license number, birthdate, Social Security number or other personal data.

When registering, a voter is required to provide his or her birthday but can use an alternative ID to the Social Security number.

The third category is what’s public. That includes your name, your mailing address, your political party (if you have one), and a list of the last 10 elections that you voted in.

Again, no one knows who you voted for, just that you voted.

Alaska’s voter database, obtained by the Empire for this article, contains 519,185 names, from Aaberg to Zywot. That database costs $21, payable to the Alaska Division of Elections.

Even with personally identifying information kept private, does the state release too much?

Reynolds of the ACLU thinks so. He referred to the state’s policy of listing the last 10 elections a voter has participated in.

“Is there a compelling public policy reason for that information for that information to be disseminated?” he asked. “The people who are writing the laws are the ones who want that information for their re-election purposes.”

Who gets it

According to a records request by the Empire, 74 companies or individuals requested the voter database between Jan. 1, 2016, and July 12, 2017.

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, is one of those people. He’s of two minds on the voter database.

As a politician, “I think there’s never enough data,” he said.

As an Alaskan, “I think we should not be required to give as much (information),” he said.

“I could go on both sides with that one,” he said of the privacy issues.

Earlier this year, Rauscher voted against a measure that would allow the state to follow the federal REAL ID Act, which requires information sharing with the federal government. The measure passed anyway.

When it comes to elections, he said he sees voting as a public action: Alaskans go to the polls and publicly cast a ballot, an act that is recorded by the state and can be verified.

It’s the amount of information that concerns him.

“All I can say is guard your information, because whatever you give them, they’re going to put out there,” he said.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, also purchased the voter database. His office uses it to tell if a caller to his office is a constituent, and if so, where they’re calling from.

“Almost all candidates get a voter list so they can contact the constituents who they need to inform about their policies and what they want to project and what policies they would like to see,” he said.

Outside firms can also buy and use the list.

Three years ago, a Political Action Committee known as the Opportunity Alliance sent mailers to potential Alaska voters. Those mailers warned that if the recipient didn’t vote in the 2014 election, their neighbors would get a mailer saying that the recipient didn’t vote.

It was an attempt to shame voters into action.

“I think that was the first time people really knew that information was accessible,” said Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole.

Wilson, who has a copy of the voter database, said that “a lot of people just didn’t seem to know that their information went anywhere.”

Who uses it

That raises the possibility of a fourth category of voter data: What happens when the state’s database is cross-referenced with other sources of information?

Not long after Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential win, the Swiss news magazine “Das Magazin” published a feature analyzing how the Trump campaign appeared to use voter records and Facebook data to tailor advertising for individual voters and swing them to its side.

As the New York Times described in a subsequent article: “A voter deemed neurotic might be shown a gun-rights commercial featuring burglars breaking into a home, rather than a defense of the Second Amendment; political ads warning of the dangers posed by the Islamic State could be targeted directly at voters prone to anxiety, rather than wasted on those identified as optimistic.”

Alaska’s voter database has likely been used for this technique as well.

Aristotle International promises “the most comprehensive voter data, consumer files, and donor files anywhere, all with 24/7 Web access.”

Catalist LLC “compiles, enhances, stores, and dynamically updates data on over 240 million unique voting-age individuals across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

The company i360 promises that it has “a comprehensive database of all (age) 18+ American consumers and voters containing thousands of pieces of individual and aggregated information that give us the full picture of who they are, where they live, what they do and what is happening around them.”

All three companies are on the list of 74 people and firms that have accessed the state database since the start of 2016.

Dan Lesh is an analyst for McDowell Group in Juneau. He worked with the state’s voter database on a project that combined it with a private database to analyze Alaska Native voting trends.

Lesh, a Juneau resident, is himself in the database.

“It’s more personal than any other data we work with, I’ll say that,” he said. “Almost every other database we work with, the names are taken out.”

That makes it useful to government as well as private business. Jerri Willcox, jury administrator for the U.S. District Court in Alaska, uses it when sending jury-duty notices statewide.

When Julie Niederhauser of the Alaska State Library needed to find out what Alaskans think of their state library system, she used the voter database to send out 500 surveys.

“We felt that people who vote would probably take the time to answer a survey,” she said.

As it turned out, she was right: “Out of the 500, we got 232 responses back. We were very satisfied,” she said.

Public and private

Even if the voter database is being used for profitable, efficient and successful purposes, are Alaskans comfortable with what’s public?

Josie Bahnke, head of the Alaska Division of Elections, said in an interview that the division had “a pretty good volume of calls” when the Trump request was first made.

“Most of the folks we talked to, once we explained that we would not provide confidential voter information, they seemed fine with that,” Bahnke said.

Elsewhere in the country, people aren’t as fine.

In Colorado, more than 3,000 people have canceled their voter registrations rather than keep their information in a database that might be turned over to the federal government.

Bahnke said Alaska hasn’t seen the same thing, but some Alaskans have questions nonetheless.

Judy Andree is the head of Alaska’s League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization devoted to encouraging voter participation.

“I’m just not sure why they’re doing this,” Andree said of the Trump administration request. “The whole thing seems strange to me and worrisome.”


Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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