The Oregon Secretary of State’s Office has made nearly $90,000 off fees during the past five years by selling voter information to political parties or campaigns and, sometimes, to private corporations who turn around and sell the data for a profit.
The state charges $500 for the database, which includes full names, addresses, phone numbers, date of birth, party registration and voter history. It does not include how anyone voted.
The people who buy the database are not supposed to use it for commercial purposes, said Tony Green, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kate Brown. In fact, they must sign a form agreeing not to do so.
Records show that many for-profit companies have purchased the entire database during the past five years.
Green said the law does not define “commercial purposes,” and the state relies on complaints before enforcement. First-time violators are fined $75.
Just one complaint has been filed since 2006, and it was against Oregon Health & Science University, which is “a public corporation and not considered operating for commercial purposes,” Green said.
Other states, including California and Washington, have similar restrictions on how data can be used; however, they levy very different consequences. In Washington, for example, misuse of the data is a class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
Records show Oregon has sold the database to companies all over the U.S. who are using it to make a profit despite having signed the affidavit.
For example, Liberty Data, based in Puerto Rico, says it sells personal data to banks, corporations, private investigators and more.
Other “data vendors” or “voter-list vendors” the state has sold to include eMerges.com, i360, Labels & Lists, Inc., Magellan Strategies, SMA Communications and statewide information systems.
These companies span the country, from Boca Raton, Florida, to Bellevue, Washington, to Sacramento, California, to Washington, D.C. Only one of them has done business with an Oregon-based candidate or political campaign. Campaign finance records show the majority of vendors and consultants who bought Oregon voter data were never hired by a political cause.
The state also has sold complete voter databases to political marketers and consultants across the country, who may or may not sell the data itself but use it to sell marketing campaigns or political advice.
Many of the “marketing” firms specialize in direct marketing, which includes mass-mailings and cold calls.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s $500 voter data fee may be unaffordable to some media outlets and political causes. Few political campaigns have bought the entire database, and The Oregonian is the only news outlet to buy it.
Public records fees often are waived in cases benefiting “the public interest,” but this fee is written into statute and cannot be waived, Green said.
And while other states do make their voter databases public, they handle it differently than Oregon.
Washington, for example, charges $7 for its entire database. California charges $30; Colorado $50. In Nevada and Wyoming, it’s free.
Even so, Oregon doesn’t top the list of states charging for the data.
Montana charges $1,000 for its voter database. Iowa charges $1,500 for its database, although smaller data sets can be bought for less. In New Mexico, the database will cost about $5,090, based on a per-record charge.
And Wisconsin sells its database for $12,500.
“Unfortunately, voter data is a major source of revenue for state governments which are otherwise strapped,” said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to advance the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process.
“It’s a really tricky public policy issue,” she said.
Voter registration records traditionally have been public because citizens have an interest in the integrity of the electoral system. On the other hand, access to voters’ personal data could jeopardize privacy and safety.
“Everyone in the political world knows this data is available, yet it’s the best kept secret from voters you can imagine,” Alexander said. “Political marketing companies marry this data with other data about people — mortgage payment amounts, subscriptions, charitable donations — to create elaborate profiles of voters.”
That makes many voters uncomfortable, she said.
In 2004, the California Voter Foundation surveyed nonvoters in that state. A quarter said they didn’t register to vote because they want to keep their personal information private.
by Hannah Hoffman and Tracy Loew for OPB, a NW News Exchange co-op member. firstname.lastname@example.org, (503) 399-6719 or follow at twitter.com/HannahKHoffman; email@example.com, (503) 399-6779 or follow at Twitter.com/ SJWatchdog