In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 midterm election, VERIFY viewers have sent us a number of questions about mailers that have been sent to their homes.
“Voter Report Cards” from the Voter Participation Center, a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase voter registration among young people, were even sent to some people on the VERIFY team. One read: “Public records indicate that you are eligible to vote in the upcoming election on Tuesday, November 8. Who you vote for is private, but whether or not you vote is public record.”
“We’re sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to share who does and does not vote in an effort to promote election participation. While we have hidden the name and street number of your neighbors to protect their privacy, these are their true voting records,” the form says.
VERIFY viewer Toni emailed us to ask if mailers like these are legal.
Are ‘voter report card’ mailers legal?
They are legal in most states and if you received one, it’s likely your state allows this release of information.
How publicly accessible voter records are depends on the state. This information can include personal registration information and whether or not someone voted in previous elections. But some states have restrictions on who can access the data, what it can be used for and where the information is published.
WHAT WE FOUND
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) almost all voter registration information in each state is available to purchase or available through a public record request. This data is often used by political candidates to find their target voters, and can be used for mailers as long as they are used for election business only and not for commercial purposes. In some states or online, this data is publicly accessible without having to pay, but in all cases who a person voted for is always private.
When a person registers to vote, they provide all kinds of personal information to the state – like a name, license number, address and sometimes a political affiliation.
According to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent government agency created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the type of data in the voter files varies state-by-state and can include much of the information a person provides when they register to vote. Some states will also include records of voters' participation in previous elections.
In most states, a person’s driver’s license number and full social security number are not shared as part of any database.
States can choose to make voter registration information available to anyone who can pay. Purchasing lists can cost up to $37,000 depending on the state, the EAC says.
Other states have restrictions on how the data is used, and some states make the information only available to political committees.
Here are the states that provide registration and voter history information to anyone. Some states require an application form or fees:
- Washington, DC
- New Jersey*
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Here are states that have policies on who qualifies to obtain data and go outside the scope of elections, for instance, the data can be used for jury selection, law enforcement or government purposes.
These states only provide lists to a candidate, political party or a political committee:
*Editorial note: Data from Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey are provided by the NCSL and EAC. VERIFY has reached out to those state election offices for confirmation.
In Hawaii, the only information available to the public is the voter’s name, voter status (active or inactive) and voter precinct. Any additional information has to go through the individual county in Hawaii, and each county can have different rules on who makes the request, an employee with Hawaii’s Office of Elections told VERIFY.
Some of those states listed above, like New York and Tennessee, have disclaimers saying the data can only use the information for election-related conduct, even though anyone can get the information.
Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Nebraska are among those states that have rules that the information can’t be published on the internet.
Most states have programs to keep voter information confidential for certain groups, such as Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) participants — voters who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and other crimes.
The only states that do not participate in those programs to keep voter information confidential for certain groups are South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to the NCSL.
In Utah, someone can submit a request to the lieutenant governor requesting their voter information be private, but Utah law also allows candidates, political parties, and contractors, employees, and volunteers of candidates and political parties to still obtain information classified as private.
When it comes to the mailers sent from the Voter Participation Center, the organization’s website says they use “commercially available data” from state databases to identify possible unregistered voters. VERIFY reached out to the Voter Participation Center for more information.
There are websites that provide searchable information for voter data that are not affiliated with a state’s election commission or Secretary of State. VoterRecords.com is one identified by VERIFY that is often used when trying to find data about a voter.
On VoterRecords.com, a person’s party affiliation, county they registered in, registration date, voter status (active or inactive), congressional district, House district and Senate district are all listed. In some instances, you can also see names of someone’s neighbors.
According to that website: “If your voter information is appearing on this site it is because the government released your information as public record.”
The site says for those wishing to remove some of their public records data from appearing on VoterRecords.com, follow these steps:
- Search for a person.
- Click on the person's name in the search results, this will take you to the individual's detailed record page.
- Scroll to the very bottom of the page and click the Record Opt-Out link. This will take you to the opt-out form specific to that record.
- Once the form is submitted VoterRecords.com will send you an email with a verification link that you will need to click to verify your opt-out request. (Not everyone will receive the verification email. If you do not receive the email this typically means your record was successfully processed without additional verification being needed.)