Just before Election Day, many Mainers got an official-looking letter that threatened to make their voting habits public. Recipients who reached out to the state’s newspapers said they felt intimidated and that their privacy had been violated.
The groups behind the mailer, the Maine State Voter Program and Be Counted Inc., provided no information about who they were and who funded their operations. Yet, the groups had access to Maine’s central voter database and used that information to compile their mailer, which warned: “After the Nov. 4 election, your friends, your neighbors and other people you know will be able to find out who voted and who did not vote. DO YOUR CIVIC DUTY — VOTE!”
This prompted complaints to newspapers, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and Secretary of State’s Office.
Many were outraged that whether they voted or not was public information. In addition, several said the information on their voting history was inaccurate.
“It definitely felt like an invasion of privacy,” John Fahrenbruch, a 50-year-old Sanford resident, told the Portland Press Herald. “I felt violated. I prefer to keep my personal information from anybody I can.”
Steve Mistler at the Press Herald tried to track the mailers, which appeared to target Republican voters, to their source. It was a convoluted trail. Voters in Alaska received almost identical mailers before the Nov. 4 election. The letters in that state included a small disclosure: they were paid for by the Opportunity Alliance. The paper tracked the group to Oregon resident John Bryan. Bryan is a big donor to a number of conservative groups, including the Koch-backed group FreedomWorks, a group that has been active in Maine, including backing Bruce Poliquin in his unsuccessful 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate and his successful bid this year for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District House seat.
When asked by Alaska Public Radio about the Opportunity Alliance, Bryan referred the reporter to the former head of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity in Oklahoma.
On June 24, Americans for Prosperity in Maine purchased the state’s Central Voter Registration database to update the group’s voter file, Mistler found. But Carol Weston, the director of the group’s Maine chapter, said her group has no affiliation with the Maine State Voter Program or Be Counted Inc.
Americans for Prosperity’s purchase of the Maine voter information was perfectly legal.
Voter information is confidential under state statute, but the law has a huge hole — the information, including voter participation history, can be sold to political parties, party committees, candidates’ campaign committees, political action committees and other organizations for “get out the vote” efforts. The purchaser pays only $2,200 for more than 900,000 records. The package includes 11 free updates throughout the year. Smaller numbers of records cost less.
The easiest way to stop mailers like the one from the Maine State Voter Program would be to stop selling this information. Alternatively, the state could pare back what is sold, perhaps eliminating the voter participation history.
If lawmakers believe selling this information to political parties and political action groups is important, they should at least require disclosures any time the information is used in mailers, phone calls and other “get out the vote” efforts. Similar to campaign ads, the disclosures should include the name of a person, his or her photo and a real address.
At a minimum, state law should be changed to charge much more for this information.