When it comes to voter records, public data isn’t always public

  • Tim Riel walks to the voting booth at Epsom Central School on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Voting was postponed in response to last week's winter storm. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 7/29/2017 12:01:57 AM

As the president’s election integrity commission presses for states to provide a database of voter information, and lawsuits swirl to stop it, the words “publicly available” continue to be batted around loosely, even incorrectly.

“If the data is already public, why is this such a big deal?” one commenter posed on an NHPR article.

Well, here’s the rub: New Hampshire’s right-to-know law grants members of the public access to government records, but it doesn’t entitle us to information. That’s a wonky, but important distinction.

Take police arrests for example: The names of people arrested are routinely included in police logs and solidly considered public information. But if someone asked for the names of everyone arrested in New Hampshire in 2016 from the Department of Safety, that request would be denied because no such record exists.

In terms of voter information, what is actually “publicly available” is a list of names and addresses of registered voters in each municipality. It’s a public record called the checklist and it can be obtained by asking the clerk in any given town in the state.

What isn’t publicly available is the electronic spreadsheet with loads of information on all the registered voters in New Hampshire that Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Gov. Chris Sununu want to send to Washington.

By law, it’s only sold – for a few thousand dollars – to political parties and political committees.

It can’t be found online. Newspapers can’t get it. Members of the public can search it on a computer in the State Archives, but they can’t even write down any of the information.

To put it more precisely, the database of New Hampshire voters maintained by the Secretary of State’s office that everyone is fighting about is a non-public government record, containing public information.

As Monitor reporter Nick Reid recently found out when accessing the database at the state archive offices on South Fruit Street in Concord, you can only search voters by name or address, and state law says you are not allowed to “print, duplicate, transmit, or alter the data.” That means you can go look up whoever you want, but you better have a sharp memory because pencils and paper are banned. Downloading information to your computer? Not going to happen.

That’s like a bank saying your money is available to you, but you can’t withdraw any of it.

“The Legislature carefully designed strict restrictions on the sharing of voter information – and limited to political entities – for good reason: to protect voter privacy,” explained Weare State Representative Neal Kurk, who is suing to block the release of the database.

In other words, the database was intentionally made non-public, even though it contains public information. As for the last four digits of social security numbers, those aren’t visible on the database at the state archives and the state wasn’t going to send them to the election commission anyway.

If all of this seems unnecessarily complicated, that’s because it is.

If it’s a public record, the Secretary of State should post the database on its website – like it does lots of other databases – so the public can access it. That way, if Trump’s election commission wants it, it’s truly publicly available and they know where to find it.

If the database remains non-public, then the election commission should be forced to do what New Hampshire citizens have to do if they want the information, and request the information from every individual municipal clerk in New Hampshire.

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