Voter sites face privacy risk

The Election Assistance Commission recommends that states take steps to protect data on voter information Web sites, even if it is public information

STATES, COUNTIES AND municipalities are making more information for voters available online through interactive Web sites, but election officials must strike a balance between convenience, privacy and functionality, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) said in a new study.

“Posting voter information on the Internet may have unintended consequences,” the study warns. “Deciding what information to provide and how to provide it is the most important step in developing a voter information Web site because the information and method of delivery define the implementation process.”

EAC published a set of best practices for voter information sites (GCN.com, Quickfind 1263), based on a 13-month study of hundreds of sites hosted in all 50 states. The study, conducted by nonprofit group Publius, did in-depth studies of 71 sites to produce the recommendations.

“The sites are more popular and more useful the more information you put on them,” said Vincent Keenan, primary investigator and author of the report.

However, at the same time, Keenan was surprised at the amount of information about registered voters some officials were putting online. Keenan agreed that the information is public, but wholesale publication of more data than necessary can create the risk of identity theft and deter users.

“Voter information Web sites allow access to potentially sensitive information and should be carefully constructed to avoid jeopardizing voters’ privacy or the integrity and security of the records,” the study states. “Voter information can be compromised by falling into the wrong hands or by being modified to the detriment of accuracy.”

Databases that can be queried through a Web site became practical with the development of computerized voter registration lists and the software to maintain them. Initial sites aimed primarily to answer the questions, “Am I registered?” and “Where do I vote?” The sites have evolved during the last decade to become more dynamic and include mapping services to locate polling places; sample ballots specific to the precinct; information on voter registration, candidates and issues; and the ability to track absentee and provisional ballots.

Keenan formed Publius in 1996 and developed the first statewide site for checking voter registration in 1997 in Michigan, after he showed up at the wrong polling place for an election. He was the senior computer center specialist at the University of Michigan’s Human Genetics Department, and thought, “there ought to be a better way to do this.”

He obtained the state’s electronic voter file for $167 through a Freedom of Information Act request and reverse engineered it to create a site that would verify a voter’s registration and produce a sample ballot. He then turned the site over to the state.

The study recommends that governments consider outsourcing the development, use commercial or open-source tools and software, plan to accommodate spikes in demand, and promote the site’s use. Section 508 requirements should be the minimum standard for accessibility, and administrators should control and limit the amount of data exposed.

“Do not expose the official registry file to the Internet,” the study states. “Create a copy of your authoritative database to use for your voter information Web site and regularly update it from the authoritative database.”

The information exposed when answering voters’ questions also should be limited to what is necessary and appropriate, and although the information being provided is public, encrypting the link wouldn’t hurt.

Quality of existing Web sites varies widely with experience, Keenan said. “The innovators that are on version 3 or 4 are quite impressive,” he said. Those who have started later or have not updated sites have more problems.

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