California Voter Foundation Logo

Voter Privacy in the Digital Age


In conducting this study, seven essential questions relating to voter registration and privacy were considered:

A. Data gathered on voter registration forms

There is a wide variety of data gathered from voters on state voter registration forms. Below is a nationwide summary of data gathering, based on an evaluation of the 48 states that have statewide voter registration forms and the District of Columbia. (North Dakota has no registration requirement, and Wyoming conducts registration only at the county level.) A detailed chart showing what information each state gathers on its form is included in the appendix of this study.

Data collected on voter registration forms

Click to enlarge

Federal data gathering requirements

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) advises states to collect the “minimum amount of information necessary” when registering voters through motor-vehicle departments. The NVRA also directed the federal government to develop a “universal” voter registration form that “may require only such identifying information (including the signature of the applicant) and other information (including data relating to previous registration by the applicant) as is necessary to enable the appropriate State election official to assess the eligibility of the applicant and to administer voter registration and other parts of the election process.”14

The NVRA form includes the following fields: name; address; gender (through salutation); date of birth; telephone number (optional); and three boxes that get filled in only if the applicant’s state requires them: ID number (typically SSN or driver’s license), party, and race. Fields not included in the NVRA form that appear on some state forms are: place of birth; parents’ name; school district; e-mail address; occupation; pollworker interest; and the need for assistance at the polls. Voters using the NVRA form complete the application according to the directions for their state and mail it to their state’s elections department. All but three states (NH, WI, WY) accept the NVRA form in lieu of their own.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by Congress and signed into law in October 2002, adds several new requirements that impact voter registration. While only eleven states are currently collecting driver’s licenses, all of them will be required to do so in the near future, since HAVA requires states to collect voters’ driver’s license numbers when they register to vote. If a voter does not have a driver’s license, HAVA requires the state to collect the last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number. If neither number is available, HAVA directs states to assign the voter a number that will be used for voter registration purposes. States are also required to match the registrant’s information with the state’s drivers’ database, and state motor-vehicle agencies are required to coordinate with the federal Social Security Administration to verify the accuracy of the registrant’s information.

HAVA also requires states to establish centralized, computerized statewide voter registration databases to improve election administration. According to, 41 states have applied for waivers to delay implementation of this requirement until January 2006.15

B. Notice to voters

There are five possible kinds of notice, or disclosure to voters, that may be included on state voter registration forms. They are, in order of prevalence:

  1. Notice warning voters of penalties for providing false information on registration forms;

  2. Notice informing voters of the reason for requesting Social Security numbers;

  3. Notice telling voters which information fields are required to be completed, and which fields are optional;

  4. Notice informing voters that their registration data is public record; and

  5. Notice informing voters what secondary uses of the registration data are permitted.

Penalty notice

Every state form includes notice informing the registrant that by signing the form the registrant has avowed to the authenticity of his or her registration information. Many warn voters that they could be fined or serve jail time for providing false information or for registering to vote if they are not a U.S. citizen. Often such penalty notices are featured prominently on the form, in bold or capital letters.

Social Security number notice

While 30 states gather all or part of voters’ Social Security numbers, only 19 state forms provide an explanation to voters for why this information is requested. The Federal Privacy Act of 1974 requires “any Federal, State or local government agency which requests an individual to disclose his Social Security account number shall inform that individual whether that disclosure is mandatory or voluntary, by what statutory or other authority such number is solicited, and what uses will be made of it.”16 The eleven states that fail to provide such notice on their voter registration forms appear to be in violation of the Privacy Act. The breakdown is as follows:

“Optional vs. required” notice

When citizens register to vote, they are required to provide certain pieces of information on their voter registration form, such as their name and street address, while other pieces of information may be optional, such as their phone number. The “optional” voter information gathered through registration forms can be useful for election administration purposes; for example, it is much easier for an election agency to contact a voter about problems processing a voter registration form if the voter has provided a phone number.

38 state voter registration forms feature some fields that are designated as “optional;” only eleven states do not feature any optional fields on their voter registration forms. For those states collecting optional information, some use the word “optional,” while others use the words “requested,” “if available” or “voluntary.” Of the 38 states that request optional information, only 13 provided clear and consistent notice to voters that the information requested was optional.

States use a variety of methods to inform voters on voter registration forms which fields are optional. Some state forms include the word “optional” in the field itself; some designate what is optional with an asterisk and a corresponding note at the bottom of the form. Some disclose which fields are optional through the written instructions featured on the form; these instructions may name the field itself (e.g. “Providing a phone number is optional”), or may reference a field number on the form (e.g. “Fields 5, 6 and 9 are optional”), thus requiring the voter to cross-check the field number with the field’s content. Written instructions often appear at the bottom of the form, rather than the top, where voters would be more likely to review them before completing the form.

The New York, Georgia, Utah, California, West Virginia and Florida forms offer examples of inadequate optional notice. In West Virginia and Florida, the forms designate only those fields that are required or “must be completed,” leaving it to registrants to deduce on their own that the remaining fields are optional.

California’s voter registration form, which used to designate optional fields within the fields themselves, instead now designates optional fields in the instructions, sometimes with confusing language, such as: “No person shall be denied the right to register because of his or her failure to furnish a California driver’s license or California identification card number. (Optional).” A similar notice for providing e-mail address is also included in the instructions. The two other optional fields on the California form, gender and phone number, have no similar notice accompanying their written instructions.

New York has two optional fields, home phone and gender. Both are indicated as optional in the instructions, but only one, phone number, is noted as “optional” in the field itself. Utah’s form has a similar problem: phone number, last four digits of SSN, driver’s license number and “disabled” are all optional fields; however, only the “disabled” field has the word “optional” appearing in the field itself.

Georgia’s written instructions appear at the bottom of the form and list which fields are required. Three fields are optional on the Georgia form: race, gender and phone number. For these items, the instructions say, “Race and gender are requested and are needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but are optional. A telephone number where you can be reached during normal business hours is helpful to registration officials if they have a question about your application.” While phone number is optional, it is not described by this term on the form itself, even though other optional fields are.

Texas sets a good example of a state voter registration form that clearly indicates what is optional. Texas places field-by-field written instructions at the top of its voter registration form. Optional fields are named and grouped together, enabling registrants to clearly understand which fields are optional. The instructions also notify voters that their record is public within the context of providing optional information. Texas’ optional notice says: “Gender, Social Security Number, Telephone number and Driver’s License Number or Identification Number are optional. The Social Security number is solicited by authority of sec. 13.122 and will be used to maintain the accuracy of the registration records. Your voter registration application is open to the public.”

Twelve other states were also found to give voters good “optional” notice by including the word “optional” or “voluntary” inside the form fields and also providing information about optional fields in the form’s instructions. These states include: DE, IA, IN, LA, MA, MD, MN, NM, NV, OH, PA, WI.

Public records notice

Of the 49 state voter registration forms evaluated, only four contain any notice to registering voters that the data they provide on the registration form is a matter of public record. New Mexico’s form, for example, features a “Privacy Act Notice” in bold letters and the language, “Certificates of registration accepted for filing by a county clerk, and the contents therein, are public records open to inspection by the public.” The other three states whose forms include such notice are Tennessee (“Voter registration records are public records, open to inspection by any citizen of Tennessee”), Texas (“Your voter registration application is open to the public”), and Iowa, which informs voters that their registration information may be disclosed to those who purchase lists of registered voters and “to those who view original voter registration records, which are public records under Iowa law.”

Secondary users notice

Only one state, Iowa, makes any specific reference to secondary users of voter registration data on its state form. New Mexico allows voters to choose whether they want their phone number to be “made public for election purposes.” California enacted a new law (AB 2832) that took effect in 2003, to add language to the top of the state’s voter registration form stating that “the use of voter registration information for commercial purposes is a misdemeanor.” However, the disclaimer is silent in regards to the secondary uses that are permitted under California law.

C. Data added to voter registration records

Election participation and preferred voting method

Every state keeps track of each voter’s participation in each election; typically this data is added to voter lists and maintained by election departments. Many states also keep track of whether voters cast their ballots at the polling place or voted absentee. Many states that do not ask voters to declare their party affiliation on the registration form do track voters’ party preferences when they vote in primary elections and incorporate this data into the voter list.

D. Data redaction

Data redacted from voter lists

State election policies redact some of the voter registration information before voter files are provided to secondary users. Below are a field-by-field summary and chart of data redaction practices.

Data redacted from voter lists

Click to enlarge

Fields that appear on voter registration forms that are not redacted from voter lists at all include name, address, gender, party affiliation and race.

Voter record suppression

27 states give certain voters the right to remove their individual record from voter lists obtained by secondary users (AZ, CA, CT, DE, FL, HI, IL, KS, LA, MA, ME, MN, MO, MT, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NV, OH, OR, RI, UT, VA, VT, WA, WI). The right to suppress one’s voter record is generally given to those people who serve in sensitive public positions, such as police officers and judges, as well as those whose personal safety has been threatened, such as victims of domestic violence or stalking, and could suffer harm if their contact information is published or distributed. Voter record suppression is not available in 24 states, including some of the most populous states, such as New York, Texas and Michigan.

The mechanics of how a state runs a voter record suppression program vary -- some offer total suppression, others remove only residential address and phone number from voter lists, and one (California’s “Safe at Home” program) provides a mail-forwarding service so that a person’s residential address is shielded by a common mailing address at the Secretary of State’s office.
Only two states make reference to confidentiality programs on their voter registration forms. In Virginia, the voter registration form allows registrants who are active or retired law enforcement or who have a protective court order to declare their address as confidential. In Wisconsin, citizens enrolled in a state program for domestic violence victims may register to vote using a state-issued ID number instead of having to provide their name and address.

E. Secondary users

Administration of elections is the primary use for voter registration data. All states permit some secondary uses of voter registration data as well. Secondary uses fall into six categories:

Political uses

Every state allows its voter registration data to be used for political purposes, which typically include sending campaign mail, precinct-walking and phone banking. Political campaigns and parties are the most common secondary users of voter registration data. Campaigns typically obtain voter data by either purchasing it directly from their state or local elections offices, acquiring it from their political party, or buying it from political data vendors. Political data vendors profit from voter registration data and thus could be defined as commercial users; however they have been widely classified as political users because the campaigns to which they sell the data are using it for political purposes.

Because the data is increasingly available in a computerized database format, it is not difficult for campaigns, parties or resellers to “add value” to this data or merge voter lists with other databases to enable campaigns to more precisely profile and target likely voters. Voter profiling has become an integral component of modern campaign strategy, and is discussed in more detail in the previous “Trends underway” section of this study.

Governmental uses

The most common and well-known secondary governmental use for voter registration data is for the selection of potential jurors; 43 states use voter lists as a juror source list. Three states rely solely on voter registration lists for juror lists (AR, MS, MT). In twelve states the voter lists are the primary source for juror lists while other government databases such as drivers’ licenses data are secondary sources (CO, DE, GA, HI, ID, IN, MD, NV, ND, PA, SD, VA). In 28 states voter registration data is one of several sources used for juror lists. Only eight states do not use voter registration data for juror lists (AK, FL, MA, ME, MI, NH, OK, WI).17

States using voter lists for juror source lists

Click to enlarge

The government sector also uses voter registration data for the redistricting process. State legislatures are required to draw new districts every ten years to ensure that legislative districts within a state have a relatively equal numbers of residents. This legislative reapportionment is based on the federal Census, which provides information not only on the number of people residing in cities and neighborhoods, but also their race and ethnicity. State legislators also use voter lists as a political tool to guide the redistricting process, as the lists give information about the party affiliation of registered voters within a certain city, precinct or district. Using voter lists in this way, architects of redistricting can make a district “safe” for an incumbent or a particular political party or, alternately, make a district more attractive for a challenger.

Other governmental agencies, such as tax authorities and state employment agencies, may also use voter registration data to locate citizens. While only four states (FL, MN, NE, PA) explicitly state in their statutes that their voter records are open to law-enforcement inspection, law-enforcement agencies are typically classified as permitted governmental users of government records.

Commercial uses

Twenty-two of the 51 states allow unrestricted access to voter lists (AK, AR, CO, CT, DC, DE, LA, MA, ME, MI, MS, NC, ND, NH, NV, NY, OH, OK, SC, UT, VT, WI). This unresticted access permits the use of voter data for commercial purposes. None of these states’ laws expressly identify commercial use of voter registration data as permissible; rather, these state statutes say that the data is available to anyone to use, or are silent about permitted secondary users altogether. Of the 29 states that prohibit commercial use of voter lists, 23 expressly forbid commercial use (AZ, CA, FL, GA, HI, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, MD, MO, MT, NE, NJ, OR, PA, SD, TX, WA, WV, WY) and six states’ statutes cite specific, permitted, non-commercial secondary uses and in this way restrict commercial access to voter lists (AL, MN, NM, RI, TN, VA).

State Map

Click to enlarge

State statutes and secondary commercial use of voter lists

Click to enlarge

Other uses

Organizations other than those with political, governmental, or commercial interests may obtain and use voter lists for various purposes. These users include scholars and researchers, the news media, interest groups and non-profit organizations. Their access to voter information is uninhibited in those 22 states in which anyone may obtain voter lists. In the remaining states that specify permitted secondary uses, few have set a policy on usage for academic, journalistic or non-profit purposes.

Scholars and academics

Scholars and researchers use voter lists to conduct polls of voters and to analyze voter demographics and participation trends. That academics should have access to voter data is acknowledged in the statutes of only four states: California and Kentucky specifically permit “scholarly” uses of their voter data, New Mexico grants access for governmental research, and Iowa for “bona fide political research.”

The news media

Journalists use voter lists to determine whether candidates on the ballot have voted in previous elections; they also use voter lists for reasons unrelated to elections, such as finding an address or phone number when investigating a story. Only four states, California, Arizona, Kentucky and Indiana, expressly grant journalists access to voter lists in their laws.

The news media as an industry presents a dilemma when it comes to distinguishing permitted secondary users. On the one hand, news organizations are protected by the First Amendment and claim Freedom of Information Act rights to public records. On the other hand, most news organizations are for-profit, and therefore are commercial enterprises; as such their access could be restricted in those states that prohibit commercial uses.

Interest groups and nonprofits

Political interest groups fall into a gray area of secondary users. While all the states allow access to political users, many do not consider political interest groups to be entitled to access voter lists. In states that distinguish between commercial and other types of usage, non-profit organizations, including interest groups, are generally held to be commercial unless there is an underlying election-related purpose. In the 22 states that permit any kind of secondary use, interest groups and nonprofits can acquire voter lists.

Interest groups that gain access to voter lists can combine them with other lists to more effectively target potential members. For example, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) reached beyond its Democratic Party base by targeting two million Republican and Independent women whose media preferences matched those of NARAL’s existing membership.18 In a similar vein, the Sierra Club used voter lists from Pennsylvania and Ohio to identify 10,000 independent women voters and cross-referenced those names with other data sources indicating whether those voters would be responsive to solicitations from liberal organizations.19

Prices for voter lists

The cost of obtaining a voter list differs from state to state, and often from county to county within a state depending on the number of voters in a county. States have different ways of pricing their voter lists. Some states limit the fees charged to secondary users to the cost of materials and time, so that voter list buyers pay only for the cost of a CD-ROM and the time election agency employees put into fulfilling the request. Some states set a flat rate that each county may charge for its voter list. Other states price voter lists on a per-record basis; these rates range from a penny per name (Nevada) to $0.10 per name (Arizona). Prior to the passage of the Help America Vote Act, 37 states already had a statewide centralized database of all voters; many of these states charge a flat rate for a statewide voter list, with prices ranging from $30 (California) to $6,050 (Georgia). However, because these statewide lists are frequently not as current or detailed as local voter lists, many secondary users continue to rely on local election agencies to obtain voter data.

Penalties and enforcement

States with restrictions on secondary usage of voter lists attempt to prevent unauthorized usage in several ways. One method states use is to seed their voter lists with decoy names—a standard practice in the mailing-list industry—in order to identify subsequent users and abusers. In this way, if a purchaser of a voter list uses the list for some unauthorized purpose, the state will know about the abuse when it receives mail sent to the decoy name and address.

In the event of the discovery of an unauthorized use, states will apply penalties of varying severity. In California, misuse of voter lists results in a fine of $0.50 per name on the list; if the list purchaser acquires the entire statewide voter list of 15 million registered voters for political purposes but instead uses it for commercial purposes or redistributes it to someone else without prior written permission from the Secretary of State, the potential fine is $7.5 million. In Washington, which permits only political secondary users, an abuser of the data can be fined $5,000 and/or serve up to five years in jail.

F. Voter registration data and the Internet

There are three ways voter registration data can get put online: 1) if states put it online; 2) if counties put it online; or 3) if a secondary user, such as a data vendor, political party or public interest group, puts it online.

As of the November 2002 election, eleven states were offering online services that enabled residents of a state to look up their polling places, and in some cases, confirm their registration status (DE, GA, HI, IA, MA, MI, MN, NC, SC, VA, UT). An unknown number of counties also were providing such services on their Web sites.

The most common system in use helps voters locate their polling places. After a voter submits his or her home address to the state election web site, the site displays the voter’s polling place. Sometimes the site will also display a map showing the location of the polling place, as well as information about the races and measures that will appear on the voter’s ballot. While this type of system requires voters to provide their home addresses, it does not display that address or any other personal information about the voter, thus preventing any voter data from being routinely disseminated over the Internet. Five states provide this type of service for voters (IA, MA, MI, MN, VA).

The state that pioneered this system was Michigan, where the Secretary of State partnered with Publius, a nonprofit voter education group, to provide voters with a registration and polling-place look-up service that does not display a voter’s personal information. The Michigan system also allows a voter to log in using his or her name and year of birth. The site displays the voter’s polling place and sample ballot for the next election, without displaying the voter’s personal information.

Hawaii and Utah use similar online look-up services. Hawaii asks for the last six digits of a voter’s Social Security number or information from the voter’s registration confirmation postcard, while Utah requires a voter’s name, county and date of birth. In both cases, the Web site displays only the polling-place address for that registered voter.

In addition to a simple polling-place address look-up, Virginia offers a secure access system that requires a state PIN number assigned by the state motor-vehicle agency to access voter registration data and status.

On Delaware’s Web site, a voter can enter his or her name in order to confirm registration status, and the site displays the voter’s name, city, zip code, polling place, and original registration date. While none of this information may be highly sensitive, the site does enable anyone to type in the name of a Delaware resident and find out if they are registered to vote.

In South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, even more personal voter information may be accessed via the states’ elections Web sites. South Carolina and Georgia ask voters to enter their name, county and date of birth. The site then displays the voter’s name, full address, date of birth, race, gender, and polling place location, as well as a map showing the route between the voter’s residence and polling place. Any Internet user who knows a South Carolina or Georgia voter’s name, birthdate and county can access that voter’s address online. North Carolina’s look-up service asks only for a registered voter’s name and then provides that person’s city and zip code, race, gender, party affiliation, voter turnout history, and polling-place map. If the user provides a date of birth as well, the site will also display the voter’s home address and voter ID number.

The potential consequences of using a date of birth as a password to access a voter’s complete information became evident when a nonprofit group, e-the People, experimented with online access to New York voter registration records in 2001. The New York site,, housed data for every registered voter in New York City. Visitors to the site could confirm their registration status and look up their polling place location by typing in their last name and birthday. The query returned the voter’s full street address and party affiliation. Because there are many famous people who live in New York and are registered to vote, it was not difficult to find the birthdates of celebrities, type that date and their name into the site, and immediately find out where they live. The New York Times wrote a front-page story about the site;20 shortly after it was published the site editors began redacting street address and party affiliation from the Internet display.

In addition to the growing number of states putting voter information online, political parties also utilize the Internet to disseminate voter lists to candidates of their party, often by giving candidates access to non-public, password-protected areas of their Web sites. While this practice generally does not conform with state laws that restrict redistribution of voter registration data, only two states, Arizona and South Dakota, have enacted statutes expressly prohibiting anyone from placing their voters’ registration data on the Internet.

The easiest way to retrieve voter data online is to visit Aristotle’s voter list service at An Internet user needs only to provide a name, phone number, e-mail address and credit card to retrieve voter lists from every state except Arizona. Aristotle charges $25 per one thousand records. Aristotle also runs another site,, where an Internet user can purchase a single voter’s record for $25. Aristotle’s services appear to violate the restrictions many states place on permitted secondary users of voter registration data. When selling data from states that restrict secondary usage, Voter Lists Online’s order form refers to the appropriate state statute, preceded by a warning that “only qualified users can purchase data pursuant to applicable laws as stated below”, and leaves it up to Internet users to determine whether or not they are permitted to access the data.

G. Information privacy regulation in other arenas

In the United States, the protection of personal privacy, including the handling of personal data, is based on a patchwork of government regulations and voluntary standards.21 Private-sector transactions involving personal information have been largely unregulated by governments. Increasingly, however, commercial vendors who gain access to personal data, such as name, address and credit card information, are bound by self-imposed “privacy polices” dictating how they may use such data and what options a consumer has to control or limit use.

A 2002 study of Web site privacy policies found that nearly all of the most-visited 85 Web sites disclose their policies on handling personal information, and 93 percent offer the consumer a choice over sharing personal information with secondary users.22 The Direct Marketing Association holds its members to a “Privacy Promise” that requires marketers selling customer lists to notify those customers of the practice and provide an opportunity to opt-out of the lists.23 Consumers retain the right to limit their participation in such transactions in the first place; they can choose to do business only with those who do not require or disclose information.

However, a person registering to vote does not have such choices. Privacilla, a Web site dedicated to privacy issues and edited by Jim Harper, puts it this way: “There is no question that protecting privacy in the commercial world can be hard. It is important to note, however, that protecting privacy from government is often impossible. When citizens apply for licenses or permits, fill out forms for regulators, or prepare tax returns, they do not have the power to control what information they share. They must submit information that the government requires. The first factor in privacy protection—power to control personal information—is totally absent in the governmental context.”24

One prominent area in which recent federal legislation protects personal information whose collection is mandated by the government is driver records. The Driver’s Protection Privacy Act (DPPA) of 1994 restricts access to state motor-vehicle records. Enacted in response to the murder of a young actress by a stalker who obtained her address through California driver records, the DPPA disallows public access to driver records as well as their sale for commercial purposes. Law-enforcement agencies, insurance companies, businesses performing ID verification, and investigators serving court business such as subpoenas are still allowed to access driver records under the DPPA.25


Site Map | Privacy Policy | About

This page was first published on June 9, 2004 | Last updated on January 23, 2012
Copyright California Voter Foundation, All Rights Reserved.