After the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity requested voter data files from the states, the media and the public wanted to know what the Wisconsin Elections Commission would do.
We issued a statement saying that under state law, parts of our statewide voter list are a public record, and if the federal commission wishes to obtain the public data, Wisconsin Statutes require that it pay $12,500 for the list, just like the political parties or any other organization.
However, voters’ birthdates, driver license numbers and the last four digits of their Social Security number are not public information and cannot be purchased by the Presidential Commission.
Many Wisconsin voters have contacted our agency with questions and concerns about making any information public. These are some of the most common questions and answers.
Q: Why does Wisconsin sell voters’ information?
A: Under state law the information is public, and “shall be electronically accessible by any person.” The WEC uses the money from voter list sales to reduce the cost to taxpayers of maintaining the computer system where the list is stored.
Q: What information about voters does Wisconsin sell?
A: The public voter record contains each voter’s name, street address, a list of the elections the voter has voted in, whether the voter’s registration is active, and whether the individual is a military or overseas voter.
Q: What information does Wisconsin not sell?
A: Confidential information includes the voter’s date of birth, driver license number or state ID number, or the last four digits of the Social Security number. Also, we cannot release whether a voter has a disability and requires an accommodation at the polling place.
Q: Why does the state have voters’ Social Security numbers?
A: When you register to vote, you are required to provide either your driver license or state ID card number, if you have one. If you do not have either, you must provide the last four digits of your SSN, if you have one. If you do not have any of those, you can still register. The percentage of people who provide the last four digits of their SSN is very small. We use these confidential numbers to help ensure the information on the voter list is accurate, and to eliminate duplicate entries.
Q: Why is voter information public? Don’t voters have a right to privacy?
A: Your ballot is secret and we have no record of who you voted for. Unlike some states, Wisconsin also has no record of which political party’s primaries you vote in.
Public records laws vary from state to state, but Wisconsin has a tradition of transparency in elections. Before we had voter registration, poll workers would write the names and addresses of everyone who voted in large books, and those poll books were open to public inspection. In many smaller towns, this was the case until 2006, when federal law required us to have a statewide voter registration list.
The main reason for transparency is to ensure nobody can steal an election by stuffing ballot boxes. If everyone can see who did and did not vote in a particular election, we can have confidence that nobody was marking ballots for people who did not show up at the polls or cast an absentee ballot.
I realize that transparency makes some people uncomfortable (especially in our Internet age), but it is far superior to a secretive system the public could not trust because they could not verify it.
The other reason the voter list is public under state law is that people running for office want access to the list so they can contact voters and ask for their support. Campaigns and other organizations routinely purchase the voter data which is public, meaning that the names and addresses of Wisconsin voters have already been provided to numerous parties.
Can voters opt out of having their names released like the DMV does with driver records?
State law does not permit us to withhold voters’ names, except in the case of confidential voters who are victims of sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking.