A little-known law in the nation’s capital is leading to complaints over the way it lets anyone on the Internet find out D.C. voters’ names, addresses, voting history and political affiliations, with little more than a click or two. The political list, known as a voter file, was published on the D.C. Board of Elections’ website in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s Democratic primary. It contains a complete record of every voter who is registered to vote in the contest, as well as whether the voter has cast a ballot in the six elections going back to 2012. The issue underscores a growing tension between the use of data in governance and the need to protect people’s privacy. Surveys by the Pew Research Center show that while most Americans approve of the use of data to evaluate a restaurant’s health and safety record, they are less comfortable when it comes to posting real-estate transactions or individuals’ mortgage data on the Internet.
We won’t link to the voter file directly here out of respect for voters who are casting ballots Tuesday, but we can say we’ve examined it first-hand. Here’s a redacted screenshot to show what it looks like. In the board of elections’s coding scheme, “Y” means voted, “N” means did not vote, “A” means absentee, “E” means voted early and a blank space means the agency has no record of how a voter behaved in that year’s election.
“All of the information contained in this listing is public information,” said Kenneth McGhie, the D.C. Board of Elections’ general counsel. “Indeed, we indicate on our voter registration form that ‘voter registration information is public, with the exception of full/partial social security number, date of birth, email, and phone number.’ All of this information can be obtained from the DCBOE pursuant to a data or Freedom of Information Act request.”