Privacy and Voting
This year in the United States is an election year. To call this year’s election “contentious” is an understatement. In that spirit, I want to offer some advice on voting and privacy. I completely support the right to vote and the freedom of any American (and ideally any person) to express their vote if they desire to. I also don’t think that voting should cost you your privacy. I think that the only way democracy can truly work is if people can feel confident that expressing their political opinions won’t put them at risk. (Source)
I worked in a county elections office almost a decade ago, during the gubernatorial race. In other words, I worked two local elections and one state election at the county level and I actually read the election law cover to cover. So while I’m far from a legal expert, I do actually know the rules for real from the source, not from “I heard once” or “I read on Facebook.”
Disclaimers: my knowledge is unique to that specific county, so while much of my knowledge is derived from national election law and applies across the board, some of it may also be area-specific. Also, this was roughly six years ago. Laws do change (albeit, quite slowly and with a lot of resistance), so some of my knowledge may be slightly outdated now. However, I do think the broad strokes I’m about to discuss should be universal, and if nothing else I hope I can give you some starting points.
Finally, as with most of my posts, I’m working under the assumption that you live in America and you possess a legal right to vote (not a convicted felon, of age, etc). I’m also working under the assumption that you possess a relatively low threat model.
Is It Even Possible?
In short, not exactly. It is not possible to lawfully vote without the government verifying your identity and location. Unfortunately, I do agree with the government on this one (I’ll take “things I never thought I’d say” for $500, Alex). It is imperative that we as a society make reasonable efforts to ensure that the only people who actually vote are the people who are invested in that vote: aka, people who actually live in the area affected and are legal citizens. Real quick, I do want to note that there’s a lot of issues to discuss here regarding citizenship, voter suppression, ID requirements, gerrymandering, and other related issues. These are important discussions to have, but this is not the place for them. I’m focusing solely on the privacy aspect.
While I recognize the importance of voter identification, I want to point out that I do not trust the government to guard a box of Tic-Tacs. Whatever information you submit, expect it to become public record eventually. In fact, it will absolutely become public record right away because most places publish an online voter log that is openly available to the public. Literally anyone anywhere with no record or oversight can go to your state or county election website, type in a few details about you (usually last name and date of birth are sufficient) and pull up your full name, date of birth, home address, phone number, email, sex, and more. In some cases you can even search the address to see who lives there. If you’re lucky, your county doesn’t digitize these records and someone would have to go in person to view them, but they’re still available.
I also want you to be aware that records are available in bulk for political purposes, however there is no oversight for this. For example, let’s say the city is planning to sell a local park to a private company who wants to build a mall there. I can request the information of every registered voter in that area so I can go door-to-door and ask them to sign my petition blocking the sale. The information requested can be configured and filtered in virtually any way you can imagine: maybe I want only women because it’s a women’s issue. Maybe I only want democrats and third parties, or only one. Maybe I want a specific zip code, or a specific area stretching from Main Street to MLK Boulevard. Maybe I only want active voters, so I want a list of people who have actually voted, or voted in the last two elections (records are not kept of how you voted, but records are kept of whether you showed up to vote or not). More often than not, the only obstacle in my path will be the price: $1 for every hundred or thousand records, $5 per CD or USB of records, which can store up to five thousand records, organized any way you want them. (Numbers are an estimate from memory, and may vary from place to place.)
The first thing you should look into when registering to vote is how to keep your name off the public record. Some states – but not all – offer a form that you can submit at any time which will remove your information from online searches. This will not remove your records from the physical in-person searches or bulk purchases I mentioned above. I believe it’s still worth submitting this form, preferably at the same time as registration. Often this means registering separately. The DMV offers a box you can click that simultaneously registers you to vote while updating your license with your new address. However, the DMV rarely has the form required to keep your information off the internet, and may not even know what you’re talking about. It’s best to go to the election office in person and register there. They will be able to verify your ID, the information, and attach the necessary form (if it exists) all at once, and they will be more knowledgeable about the subject.
Again, this will not stop your information from being on file and abused by an employee, caught up in a data breach, or simply taken in and endlessly contacted by a political party. For that, I have a couple strategies. First, fill out as little information as possible. Information like email and phone number are optional, don’t fill them out at all. It should go without saying that I do not encourage lying or the use of disinformation in any way when it comes to voting. Using a VoIP number or masked email is fine. I’m talking about the use of fake names, nicknames, fake date of birth, or fake social security numbers. Never give the elections people fake information, that is a crime.
This part is best used in conjunction with hiding your address. This trick requires you to have multi-unit housing – such as an apartment or condo – and simply to leave your address incomplete. For example, if you live at 500 Maple Street Apartment 315, register as living at just 500 Maple Street. Most systems don’t require a unit number, and if you took my advice to visit in person to register you can just leave the apartment number off. By the time they go to type it in and verify it, you’ll be long gone and the staff doesn’t get paid enough to hound you about it. They’ll just override it and leave it blank. Even if they put one in, the original document you filled out will be scanned and I feel pretty confident that you wouldn’t get in trouble for putting in false information when they view the original document (note: I’m not a lawyer, don’t point to this blog as legal defense).
Personally I don’t see this as fraud because you’re still voting in your specific districts and areas (although the law may disagree). When I worked at the elections office, the only time we ever sent mail was to send a sample ballot (which can be pulled online) or to verify an address if mail got kicked back. You can easily ensure this doesn’t happen by using a mailing address. I’ve never seen a voter registration form that doesn’t allow you to pick a mailing address that’s separate from your residential address. I firmly believe that you should have a PO Box that doesn’t point back to your true, current address so I don’t see an issue with using it here. Why not just put that in the address in the first place? Honestly, because that’s fraud and possibly puts you in the wrong voting zones (assuming it even passes registration verification in the first place). Even if your PO Box is only a block away from your actual house, that street could be the difference between District 5 and District 7. You run the risk of not being able to vote on issues that are actually relevant to you, and possibly screwing up issues for someone else who actually is affected by them.
If you live in a single-family house, things become much harder. You could possibly use your next door neighbor’s address, however I would caution you that this is definitely illegal, but I would argue that it’s ethically okay under two conditions: first, make sure you’re on good terms with your neighbor and they are consenting to this, because they will definitely get mail and possibly even in-person visitors looking for you. Second, do your research and be absolutely certain that the neighbor you’ve selected resides in all the same districts as you. As a final warning on this idea, be aware that in some states voter registration is sufficient evidence for certain tax-related issues like tax breaks, or even counts as identification in some scenarios, so this could come back to bite you. Do your research with this idea, and be warned that it comes at a high risk.
Registration and Unregistration
A final, more extreme option that I don’t recommend is to register to vote right before an election, then unregister. If you’re going to do this, make sure you know when to register. There is a cutoff date, usually 30 days prior to the election, to ensure that the election officials have adequate time to process your registration and add it to the voter rolls. If you miss this window, you will not be able to vote in that election. Furthermore, this strategy does not protect you from data breaches. I can’t remember if deactivated voters are included in purchased records or not. Best case scenario, now your data is safe from being purchased by political campaigns as they're usually interested only in active voters. However, your information is still in the system and is absolutely prone to being caught up in a data breach and is usually still searchable online (though it does not that your registration is inactive). Personally I find data breaches to be the much more likely risk rather than a rogue employee or stalker (speaking on a widely applicable, statistical scale).
I mentioned briefly up top that I think it’s critical for you to examine your threat model. If you absolutely cannot risk being exposed, I don’t think you should register to vote at all. Sucks, but that’s the price you pay for life. Ultimately voting comes with risks, both real (data breaches) and potential (possible abuse of voter data in the future). It’s up to you to decide if you want to cast a ballot and if the risks are right for you. But I hope this post has given you some ideas and starting points to consider so that you can – if you so choose – exercise your rights without totally giving up on privacy altogether.