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Voting can be dangerous for domestic violence survivors in Washington state

caption: Registering to vote without revealing one's address is nearly impossible in Washington state, even with a program dedicated to women who are survivors of domestic violence.
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Registering to vote without revealing one's address is nearly impossible in Washington state, even with a program dedicated to women who are survivors of domestic violence.

The woman describes the day her heart stopped.

She had left an abusive relationship, moving with her child to a discrete apartment in what looked like a single-family home. She thought she would be safe there — that there was no way he’d find where she was living.

Then there he was. On her street. He didn't see her, and the moment passed. Even so, the fear is still palpable decades later.

"When you see a stalker or an abusive ex, you can’t even believe the rush of adrenaline," she said. "It’s just never ending. If you catch their name or a sight of them or a mention of them somewhere — you experience those traumas all over again.”

The woman is a KUOW listener. We’re not revealing her identity because of safety concerns. After last year’s November election had a voter turnout of just 22.86 percent in King County, we asked listeners why they don't vote — and she messaged us privately on Facebook. Registering to vote could disclose where she lives to her abusive ex.

The year I discovered that my name and address as a registered voter were being published publicly was the year I stopped voting. KUOW listener

That's because, in Washington state, registering to vote means your address is easy to access online. Anyone who knows the voter's birth date could log in to their private voter page.

“The year I discovered that my name and address as a registered voter were being published publicly," the listener said, "was the year I stopped voting and got my information changed.”

There is an Address Confidentiality Program, which lets abuse survivors opt out of the public database, but the listener who got in touch with us said it isn't easy to use.

She said protecting her personal information online feels like a never-ending battle, and she’s upset that her only realistic alternative seems to be giving up her right to vote.

“I resigned myself that I would not vote again as long as I couldn't keep my information private," she said.

By phone, she described the lengths she has gone to remove herself from websites that publish addresses and other personal details. She said she wonders why full addresses are displayed by default in the voter registration database, and why the database is so easy to access in the first place.

“We should not have to sacrifice our privacy and our security in order to have our vote,” she said.

caption: A screenshot. We're not offering more information on where this came from to reduce the chance of someone abusing it.
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A screenshot. We're not offering more information on where this came from to reduce the chance of someone abusing it.

Open-records advocates note that making election records accessible online can be positive, because it means voters can check if their ballots were counted.

Derrick Nunnally, a spokesperson for Secretary of State, said Washington state adopted online technology early, and that transparency ranks high when it comes to public records such as voter registration.

“Our public-record law is set to provide maximum transparency in government,” he said.

Nunnally said the state’s Address Confidentiality Program exists to protect those who want to keep their records confidential because of safety concerns. The program provides an address forwarding service for those who have experienced domestic violence, stalking or sex abuse -- with around 4,500 people currently enrolled. Criminal justice employees may also participate in the program if they’ve been harassed or threatened.

The program allows qualifying residents to register to vote without their personal details becoming publicly available.

But there are caveats. Program applicants have to work with an approved advocacy organization to ensure that they meet all the requirements, and they must have recently moved so their address isn’t already published elsewhere online.

"It can be difficult to get entry into the system if you've already placed your name in public records — your driver's license or property records,” Nunnally said. “If so, there's not a lot an address confidentiality program can do. You can't really un-ring that bell, as unfortunate as it is."

The KUOW listener found that to be true. She tried to apply to the Address Confidentiality Program, but was told her address was already posted on third-party sites that publish voter registration data. (KUOW is not detailing where data is available in an effort to protect victims.) And since she wasn’t planning on moving, she wasn’t immediately eligible.

“They did end up telling me that if I cancel my registration, which I did … and wait for a cycle or two so I was no longer on the public record, then I could re-file registration,” she said.

She eventually ended up moving, but then discovered she was still unknowingly registered to vote — and that her new address had been updated.

“It’s like whack-a-mole, trying to stop every single one of these leaks,” she said. “It’s a never-ended process. It seems like there's always a new one springing up. It’s maddening.”

Not all states handle voter registration data this way. Colorado doesn’t make voter addresses available online, though it will provide that information in public records requests. California does not release voter addresses to the general public; journalists seeking the information must demonstrate “journalistic purpose,” according a UC Berkeley public records tutorial.

Then there are places that lean the other way. The Washington D.C. Board of Elections made waves a few years ago when it published an open database of voter data that included addresses and party affiliation.

The move drew criticism from privacy advocates and prompted open-government advocates at the Sunlight Foundation to run an editorial pointing out that “publishing the names and addresses of minorities, women and members of marginalized communities in an easily searchable form online increases the potential for that data to be used for harm, particularly for populations where domestic abuse is at issue.”

Sunlight Foundation spokesperson Katya Abazajian said in an email that “public policy often has unanticipated effects, and transparency policy is no different.” She added that Washington state lawmakers should engage experts to adapt transparency laws to address concerns as they arise.

Rachel Krinsky is the executive director of LifeWire, one of several King County advocacy organizations that helps register people for the Address Confidentiality Program. She said some of LifeWire’s clients have asked about registering to vote as homeless, but that poses the same problem.

“If you’re homeless, you still have to give an address, which might be the cross street where you’re staying,” she said. “But if you’re a survivor and you give the cross street, you’ve just divulged your location.”

Nunnally, with the Secretary of State’s office, stressed the importance of applying for the Address Confidentiality Program before a new address is known.

"We can't go through every record that’s already in existence and say, that person doesn't live at 123 Main Street anymore,” he said. “But if you've moved to an address that you don't want anyone to know about, you should come to us before you start filling out paperwork."

But the KUOW listener said she wishes data weren't so easy to access, and she wonders why it’s not treated more like license plates — available via a public records request, which leaves a paper trail.

“There’s some accountability,” she said. “They’re not just going to issue it willy-nilly. I feel like voter records should be treated the same way. They shouldn’t just be listed online.”

More information

The deadline for registering to vote online and via mail for the November general election has passed, but you can still register in person until October 29.

For more about applying for Washington’s Address Confidentiality Program, here are the state’s FAQs.

If you’re experiencing domestic violence, many advocacy organization provide 24-hour hotlines, including LifeWire (425-746-1940), DAWN (425-656-7867) and Consejo Counseling and Referral (206-461-4880 or 206-753-7006 after hours).

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