christine stuart  / ctnewsjunkie

HARTFORD, CT – Friends of the news media on Friday told the General Administration and Elections Committee that Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s proposal to get rid of some information as part of the voter file is a mistake.

Merrill said no issue has generated more calls and emails to her office than voters upset that their names, addresses, birthdates, and phone numbers are publicly accessible and available on the Internet.

Merrill is seeking to restrict the use of the birth date and month. The year someone is born would still be part of the record under her proposal.

“To this day, and as recently as last week, we receive angry calls from voters who, when they google their own names, find their birth date on the internet,” Merrill told the General Administrations and Elections Committee Friday.

“Voters are horrified to find out how much information our office gives out in the voter file, and their horror increases with each corporate data breach that is reported,” she added.

Matt Kauffman, vice president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former Courant reporter, said the legislation is fatally flawed and contains language that vests “far too much discretionary power in the Secretary of the State.”

He said the ability of the media and other organizations to play a role to play a watchdog roll in the administration of elections is diminished under this proposal. He pointed to the work done by Hearst Connecticut Media in using the voter list to match up with those who cast absentee ballots.

“Restricting the date of birth is a solution to a non-existent problem,” Kauffman said.

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He said “amassing dates of birth is not how identity thieves operate.” He said the voter list has never been to blame for a data breach.

Merrill said according to Risk Based Security, a security firm that researched the issue, 2019 was the worst year on record for security breaches. There were 5,183 breaches that exposed 7.9 billion records.

“The voter file is meant to be a registry of voters,” Merrill said. “No one who registers to vote imagines their personal data will be sold by the state to anyone with $300.” 

The state voter list costs $300.

Kauffman said when he worked at the Courant they used the date of birth from the voter list to confirm the identity of school bus drivers with felony records. He said the information is extremely useful.

Merrill’s bill also seeks to ban the sale of the voter list for “commercial purposes.”

The bill then lists three specific examples of a commercial purpose under the proposal: harassment of any voter; soliciting or marketing to a voter; and reproduction of the information in print, audio, broadcast or the Internet.

That would seem to limit the ability of political candidates to purchase the list to send mail.

It would have also made it impossible for a newspaper to expose that a public official lived at one address but was registered to vote at a different address.

“The media enjoy broad protection under our state and federal constitutions and this committee should proceed extremely cautiously on any proposal at odds with those constitutional mandates,” Kauffman warned.

Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Merrill, said she’s open to modifying the legislation.

“We used California’s language in the submitted bill as a starting point, but there are 46 other variations of prohibiting commercial use of the voter file and we are willing to work with everyone who is interested in finding language that works for Connecticut,” Rosenberg said.