Voter Registration is a Massive Privacy Issue
Many survivors of domestic violence and stalking must choose between casting their vote and their personal safety.
Last week was when I would normally have sent my ~2x/month newsletter, but after the stressful week of the election and outpouring of celebration when the race was called for Biden, I had very little room in my head for anything but election news, and I assumed most of you would be the same.
The day after the election brought me back to thinking about how technology facilitates harm against survivors of domestic violence when I saw some tweets about concerns survivors have about the lack of privacy in voter registration. I’ve spent many hours since then going down the rabbit hole of this particular issue.
Marleigh, the author of the tweets I saw, is an activist, advocate, and survivor, and we had a lovely Zoom interview last week on the topic. She told me about how she had helped a close friend register, and as part of that, had looked up her current registration status using only her friend’s name and birthday. The results of that search provided Marleigh with her friend’s current address, reminding her just how easy this system makes it for for stalkers to track down their victims.
“It puts you in a position where you have to ask, which is more important, my personal safety or my ability to vote and have a say in our democracy?” said Marleigh. “Especially like an election in 2020, where it’s so important to vote, I was wondering, how many people are out there who aren’t voting because they can’t have their address out there for safety reasons?”
While researching this topic, I realized that it’s not only people with abusive current or former intimate partners who can be harmed through voter registration information. A news article from the week before the election tells the story of a woman who went on one date with a man (just one!), who then immediately began to stalk and terrorize her with information he learned from public voter registration rolls. He sent her information she hadn’t shared on her date, such as her address, details about her car, and the birthdays of her parents. He threatened to kill both her and her mother. Making so much information essentially public through voter registration sites opens many people up to the possibility of being harmed by both known abusers and near-strangers. All someone needs is your name and birthday.
Marleigh mentioned that there are solutions to the problem, but they require significant work on the part of survivors. Many states have address confidentiality programs (ACPs), which allow a survivor to designate a P.O. Box for their voter registration records. However, these programs are poorly advertised. Have you ever seen information about this when registering to vote or reading about how to register? I haven’t. Most survivors learn about the program through domestic violence agencies. And when they do know about it, the process is often extremely cumbersome.
“It’s just another thing you have to do,” said Marleigh during our interview. “It’s another added burden on a victim that I don’t feel like should have to be their responsibility.”
I looked into exactly what each state requires to enroll in an ACP program. I found that nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming) don’t have any kind of ACP program, leaving survivors who want to both vote and keep their address private no options.
Among states that do have the program, Arizona and Colorado have the most burdensome requirements: you have to provide a form of legal evidence of the abuse, such as a police report. Considering half of all survivors never report their abuse to the police, this is an especially terrible requirement. It also means that Black women and women of color are less likely to be able to both vote and keep their address private, as they’re even less likely than white women to seek help from the police, and when they do, studies have shown they’re less likely to be believed, meaning they’re less likely to have a police report documenting their abuse. There’s already so much voter suppression against Black people and people of color without disenfranchising survivors who have to choose between voting and their safety.
Nine states require that the survivor have a protective/restraining order against the abuser, which also requires engagement in the criminal-legal system that many survivors simply don’t view as a safe or useful option. New Mexico’s application comes with a $25 fee. Delaware and Nevada require either a restraining order or proof that the abuser was convicted of abuse, while Wisconsin allows for a statement from a shelter agent or authorized domestic violence/sexual assault representative in place of evidence or a restraining order. The best states to live in terms of ACPs are Minnesota and Virginia, where the survivor simply needs to be a resident of the state and be afraid for their safety. (You can look up details for your state here.)
In terms of tech, no system should give private information, especially an address, to anyone who knows very basic information about someone. This came up a few years ago while staffed on a client that’s a large membership organization. We were redesigning the flow for membership renewal, and our stakeholders wanted to let users into the flow using only their name and birthday, as opposed to logging in. My team lead pointed out that the flow included the latest address for the user we had in the system, and that allowing people get in with just a name and birthday would mean that anyone who had that basic info would be able to get someone’s address. In the end, the client agreed that it was too dangerous to design it that way (big shoutout to my team lead on that project Mike for identifying this serious safety issue.)
This is a good solution that could also be applied to voter registration: accessing voter registration info and the associated address should require more than just a name and a birthday. But the best solution is one that doesn’t have anything to do with technology at all: every eligible voter should be automatically registered. Voter registration is a form of voter suppression; it was literally created in the early 19th century when states wanted to keep growing immigrant populations from voting. The safest voter registration system for survivors and others who need to keep their addresses private for safety reasons is no voter registration system.
This is something I’m going to bring up over and over again in my book: that many of the problems with technology-facilitated domestic violence have some technical solutions, but more often than not, the problem is rooted in something bigger and more complex that we need to work to dismantle. While I make practical technical and design suggestions for designing for safety, I also try to provide the bigger context for why this problem exists in the first place; after all, our tech is reflection of our society, and reproduces the same inequalities. Which is why we need to work to make voter registration info more secure and get address confidentiality programs in every state and reduce the burden on survivors to enroll in them and work to make them irrelevant through doing away with voter registration altogether. For every problem we see in tech around safety, there are multiple avenues for making meaningful change.
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