Voting is the most important act we can perform as Americans, imperative to the health of our nation. Why then, does the State of Connecticut continue to risk the personal privacy of those that vote? Why do we continue to allow our voter registration data to be exploited for commercial purposes? Even worse, why is our voter registration information still at risk of being weaponized by foreign adversaries? The inaction of the state on this issue is unacceptable.
First, let’s review where this situation stems from. The Secretary of State maintains a list of the active voter rolls across Connecticut, which includes over 2 million records. Since Connecticut’s founding, this data has been publicly available. This serves a vital purpose. External observers, such as journalists and non-profit groups, can access and monitor voter rolls to ensure they are properly managed. Importantly, they can verify voting access to groups that have historically had their voting rights disenfranchised, especially through nefarious voter roll “cleanings.”
Registrars of Voters resistant to legislative changes that expand voting access, such as protecting a felon’s right to vote, are more reluctant to install unnecessary impediments to voter registration, knowing anyone can see the voter roll they are responsible for. In addition, political parties use access to voter rolls to reach voters with information essential to their campaigns.
However, what has changed over recent decades is the ease of access to this data and the manner in which it is maintained. Because of how Connecticut manages voter data, anyone can purchase a digital copy of the entire statewide voter roll for only $300. Over 2 million up-to-date records easily at your hands for just a few hundred bucks.
While it is true that this all benefits journalists, non-profits, and local political parties, it’s easy to imagine that such readily available data, with almost no protections safeguarding its use, might be highly desirable to less virtuous actors. For example, companies purchase voter registration information and sell the data online. Data-mining companies love the access to the data, as it’s essentially regularly updated for them. Marketers and advertisers can exploit the dataset by uploading it into social media platforms, like Facebook, and match it with users to build an advertising audience, thus being able to better target customers based on attributes like political affiliation, age, location. Others, such as the website Connvoters, just post voter registration information openly online for all to see. If you Google your name, it is likely that one of the first results will return with your voter registration information.
But this issue is not just about personal privacy, it is an issue of national security. As elections in 2016 through 2020 have demonstrated, there is overwhelming evidence that our enemies are influencing elections and attacking our democratic institutions. In Fall of 2020, the FBI warned that Russia and Iran had obtained U.S. voter data in a bid to sow unrest before the election, according to the Guardian. With how readily available Connecticut’s data is, it is likely that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are weaponizing our information.
One way this can happen is by using the voter rolls to create audience sets and then uploading that information into platforms like Facebook, which, disturbingly, have tools to find additional users that are similar to your audience. This allows enemies to target misinformation and propaganda campaigns to known voters, based on their political affiliation, age, gender, and address. These campaigns can in turn be highly targeted and more effective. Some of this activity may violate Facebook’s terms of service, but the social media giant has proven to be largely ineffective at combating foreign disinformation campaigns.
It is clear that Connecticut’s legislature must finally address this violation of personal privacy and stop this assault on our national security. Last year, the Secretary of State introduced legislation to address many of the issues addressed here, but the bill never made it out of committee. In fact, every time legislation has been proposed in the last decade, it hasn’t made it out of committee.
A bill (HB 6330) introduced this year by State Rep. Mary Mushinsky would allow victims of domestic violence to omit their residential address information from voter registry lists. This is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough and still hasn’t made it out of committee. Our state, a leading hub of innovation, can find a way to allow access to ensure voter roll integrity and fairness, while also restricting commercial use, prohibiting posting it openly on the web, and selling to or sharing with foreign governments.
Blaize Levitan was raised in Ellington and has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Connecticut. He is also an experienced government administrator and writes about public policy and government.