DC's Voter Rolls are on the Internet

Is this 'Shocking' or is it 'same old same old'?

Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an article with a headline destined to scare the crap out of DC’s voters: “D.C. makes it shockingly easy to snoop on your fellow voters.” But behind this hyperbole was a simple act; the DC Board of Elections posted the voter roll on the internet for public inspection. For those who might not know any better, this must have been quite a surprise. But for close observers of DC’s elections, this was, well… a nothingburger. Here’s why.

In 2015, with little fanfare, the District passed the Primary Date Alteration Amendment Act of 2014, which required the Board of Elections to “publish and display on its website…a searchable copy of the list of qualified electors registered to vote as of the date the voter registry closed.” This law is what scandalized the Post.

The legislation’s concept of public display of the voter roll was hardly novel, since the law had already long required the Board to “cause a District-wide alphabetical list of qualified electors registered to vote in the District to be placed in the main public library.” So, ok, you’d have to make your way to Penn Quarter to get the voter roll, but there it was.

In practice, this was not the only way to access this data. In fact, the most common way to access the voter roll was to spend $2, fill out this form: https://www.dcboee.org/pdf_files/Data_Request_Form.pdf, and get the Microsoft Access Database. If you wonder whether that would actually work, here’s Aaron Schumacher’s write-up of getting the data online.

And, if you think that this was abnormal, you must never receive campaign mailers or have campaign volunteers know your name. Because the reality is that this data has long been in the hands of political operatives in the District. I can say from personal experience that I had the complete set of voter data in 2006.

Because I’m only a few minutes away from the start of Game of Thrones, I won’t dwell too long on all of the policy implications of posting this information online. I, of course, recognize the arguments about privacy implications.

But those who argue that this information shouldn’t be available electronically misunderstand the reality of the situation: it’s been accessible to political parties and anyone with a Thomas Jefferson bill for at least a decade. And to the extent that voter roll data has been widely accessible anyway, it seems to me that Aaron Schumacher hit it on the head:

I wonder if [the Board of Elections] would accommodate daily requests for every ward’s data. It seems like it would be much less annoying to just put the data online automatically; it isn’t even very heavy…. Any option that doesn’t require making a physical visit to their office during their fairly narrow business hours would be an improvement. Any format that doesn’t require purchasing proprietary software would be an improvement.

Furthermore, as Aaron notes, perhaps those who care about civic engagement might use this data for good: it “could be used for planning voter registration drives or reminding people to vote, for example. It could also be combined with other data sets to get a more comprehensive understanding of DC, and probably lots of other things I haven’t thought of.” Rather than be afraid, perhaps DC’s civic tech community should find a way to use this data to make DC more humane, to use this data to create more connections among Washingtonians who exercise their most basic, fundamental right to vote.

The alternative is, if we’re being totally honest, just the status quo.