As Rhode Island’s Secretary of State, I am constantly working to improve access to the ballot box and protect the integrity of every vote. These are not just core goals of my office. They are fundamental to our democracy and critically important to making government accountable to you, the people it serves.
If you are one of Rhode Island’s 778,000 registered voters, your information is housed in the state’s Central Voter Registration System (CVRS). The CVRS includes a voter’s full name, full date of birth, home address, party affiliation, voting history, and personal identifying information such as driver’s license number and/or the last four digits of one’s Social Security number. Historically, electronic copies of the complete voter file of all registered voters, minus the driver’s license and Social Security data, have been made available to the public.
The evolution of technology in the last 15-20 years, however, requires government to revisit how we think about access to your personal information. The ever-increasing ability to download and manipulate data requires ongoing scrutiny and evaluation.
Experts in identity theft agree that protecting your personally identifiable information is crucial to protecting against fraud. In fact, researchers have found that knowing a person’s place of birth and date of birth can be exploited by hackers to predict that individual’s Social Security number.
This concern is very real for many Rhode Islanders who have made it clear to me that they are not comfortable with the electronic disclosure of their full name, full address and full date of birth as part of the voter data we provide the public upon request. Cybersecurity experts agree that handing a potential scam artist or identity thief a file with 778,000 sets of sensitive personal information, including your full date of birth, is a very bad idea.
Our current election law does not require full dates of birth to be provided as part of a public voter list. Therefore, I made the decision in 2017 to redact the months and days of voters’ dates of birth from any full, digitized version of the database that is distributed in bulk to the public. I did this for the same reasons that we have long redacted driver’s license numbers and Social Security numbers from that data — to keep voters safe.
To be clear, full dates of birth have not been removed from the CVRS, just as driver’s license and Social Security numbers have not been removed. This sensitive information is simply not provided as part of the complete file of registered voters to members of the public who request them. Instead we limit the information to providing only year of birth.
I have submitted legislation, House bill 5925 introduced by Rep. June Speakman and Senate bill 588 introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, that would update Rhode Island General Law § 17-6-5 to reflect our current practice and the highest legal standards. As your Secretary of State, I have made transparency and accountability hallmarks of my administration. I encourage you to get involved in the hearing process for this proposed legislation, to testify, and to share your views on how to maintain transparency in government while protecting the privacy of individuals. I look forward, as always, to hearing from you.
Nellie M. Gorbea is Rhode Island Secretary of State