RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Transparency or privacy?
North Carolina election officials find themselves walking a fine line between being forthcoming with public information while also guarding the most sensitive details about the state’s roughly 7 million registered voters.
A recent study by tech firm comparitech.com ranked North Carolina last in the nation in protecting the privacy of voter data.
The group evaluated the voter registration databases of all 50 states, the security systems put in place to protect them and who has access to that data.
And with mail-in voting already underway in the state and less than 50 days until Election Day, keeping that sensitive information safe is critical, said Paul Bischoff, the author of the study.
“There’s been a few cases in states where Russian hackers have gotten into these databases and stolen the data, and in a lot of states they don’t even have to do that — the data is freely available, like in North Carolina,” Bischoff told CBS 17 News on Thursday.
North Carolina has some of the most accessible registration data in the country, with a voter’s name, address, age by birth year and political party available on the state Board of Elections website.
Under state law, certain information about each voter is considered public record, state elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon said. Other details — date of birth and Social Security and driver’s license numbers, for example — are confidential and will never be intentionally disclosed, he said.
The publicly available data is used by a wide range of groups, from businesses to political parties and researchers.
“We have and will continue to examine and consider ways to protect voters’ confidentiality while balancing that with the transparency that is useful to so many people and professions,” Gannon said.
Bischoff says one solution is to allow any voter to request his name and address not be published online.
“I think that’s a pretty simple thing to do,” he said.
State law currently allows that to happen if the person has a protective order and a statement that explains why the physical safety of the voter or member of the voter’s family would be at risk if that information were to be made public.
While those details would remain a public record, it would be kept confidential as long as the protective order remains in effect or as long as the person is a member of the state’s Address Confidentiality Program.
Virginia scored the highest in the rankings, with 37.5 points. That state limits access to its registration rolls to certain groups — political parties, committees, candidates and researchers — and charging more than $5,000 for it. Members of the public can obtain it too, but first they must prove they will use it to promote voter registration and participation.
North Carolina is one of 31 states that allow the general public to access voter data, and one of 11 states that doesn’t specify in their election code how they should be used or implement penalties for solicitation.
The study did give the state credit for keeping those confidential records and for maintaining and updating its voter registration system regularly despite not replacing it during the past decade.
“There’s not always a clear line,” Bischoff said. “There is sometimes a compromise. Do you want more transparency? Do you want academics and political parties and reporters to sort of audit the election system? Or do you want individual privacy for every voter?
“So, there’s tradeoffs,” he added. “We’re not really saying any one particular way to do it is the right way, but I think in North Carolina, there are some more clear improvements that can be made.”