Here's Who Really Has Access To Idaho's Voter Data

Nov 7, 2017

When you cast your ballot today, that choice will be kept private. But dozens of people will know if you showed up to the polls, your name, address and your party affiliation – even if they don’t know for whom you voted.

That's not because of data breaches like one that recently happened at the credit bureau Equifax, but simply because of the act of voting.

President Donald Trump claims millions of people voted illegally last November, but that’s never been proven.

In May, Trump created his Commission on Election Integrity, which has met twice, but hasn’t backed up his claims. It’s also currently in a holding pattern, with one Republican member saying its work has stalled.

As its first act, the commission requested the names, addresses, dates of birth and the last four digits of voters’ social security numbers across all 50 states, prompting an outcry from privacy advocates and a flurry of lawsuits.

Idaho is among 35 states to hand over bits and pieces of that data, but only what’s publicly available to anyone with $20 to spare.

In 2016, that same data went out to 75 individuals or companies both in the Gem State and across the country.

Below, you'll find a map detailing each person or company that requested Idaho's voter database in 2016. Click on each pin to learn who they are and any affiliation they might have. Note: exact addresses have been changed due to privacy concerns, though the pins are located in the same town or city listed on their database request form.

That includes Corey Cook, Dean of the School of Public Service at Boise State University. The treasure trove of nearly 800,000 registered voters here allows him to sort out patterns in voter behavior – like if young people who voted in a presidential election will vote in midterms or even primaries.

“Voter data are an important source of data for researchers – whether that’s academic researchers who are interested in these broader voting trends or if it’s companies who are interested in microtargeting voters for elections,” Cook says.

Campaigns have gotten savvier recently. Staffers can figure out who their likely voters are and who they need to flip based on demographic data and voting trends.

Cook is one of just four researchers out of the 75 who requested Idaho’s voter database last year.

The majority were politicians, but nearly one-third of them were lobbyists, campaign consultants or marketing firms.

“I do think that we need to limit the access to the voter list to those who are truly engaged in the political process and not those who might be using it for marketing purposes . . .” says state Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise).

Gannon would like to let voters opt out of releasing some of their information, but he’s still working out the details.

He’s more adamant about levying stiffer penalties for those who would skirt the affidavit everyone has to sign before getting a copy of the database – promising not to use it for commercial purposes.

“In order to be sure that we’re not having marketers and people really investing for profit,” Gannon says.

"It can be challenging to go to the state, to do all the applications to get the data, to then figure out what subset of that data is actually relevant to you and then to sort of figure out what you need to do with it." -Gina Davis

Right now, anyone who breaks that promise risks up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

The Secretary of State’s office says campaign consultants get a pass since the law allows the data to be used for any kind of political purpose.

This is where it gets murky.

NationBuilder, a company out of Los Angeles that pulled Idaho’s database, lists politicians and advocacy groups, along with fashion companies and coffee shops among its clients.

Gina Davis, vice president of professional services for NationBuilder, says they’re not using voter data for commercial purposes.  

“At the end of the day, the voter file is not meant to be a product on which we make money,” says Davis. “It was just a matter of we built this product to give people the tools to do the thing that they wanted to do.”

But the company does sell voter data from individual states online to those eligible based on local laws. Instead of the $20 you’d pay at the Idaho Capitol, you’d owe $2,000 – nearly a 10,000 percent markup.

Davis says NationBuilder only charges that flat fee to noncustomers – and that you could get around it by signing up for a free trial.

"[Sutton] robbed banks because that's where the money is. If it's known, or easily discoverable, that a particular company is acquiring massive amounts of voter data then I would expect them to be targets." - Bryan Cunningham

Costs for each state’s voter database varies if you get it directly from the original source. Oregon’s list will cost you $500, while Utah charges $1,050. The bill for Alabama’s voter database runs about $32,000.  

But politicians and companies aren’t the only ones interested in that data.

Bryan Cunningham, who heads the Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute at University of California, Irvine, says a lot of hackers will follow what he calls the Willie Sutton rule.

“[Sutton] robbed banks because that’s where the money is. If it’s known, or easily discoverable, that a particular company is acquiring massive amounts of voter data then I would expect them to be targets,” Cunningham says.

While public voter databases don’t boast as much sensitive information as health records, for instance, Cunningham notes identity thieves can still piece together someone’s life through them.

Idaho has already dealt with a security breach through a third-party company. Nearly 790,000 people who bought hunting and fishing licenses had their data stolen last year, according to the Idaho Statesman.

The state hired a cyber security czar over the summer to beef up its tech shield against hackers.

However, residents will have to trust outside companies who have their voter data to handle it with the same care.

For more local news, follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson

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