Va. Elections Board investigates group's access to voter list

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

A day after a nonprofit group canceled a mailing designed to get out the vote, the Virginia State Board of Elections is investigating whether the organization illegally obtained access to a closely controlled registration list that includes voter histories.

Nancy Rodrigues, the Board of Elections secretary, said she was troubled by the Know Campaign's access to a list of at least 350,000 voters and wanted answers from the organization. Rodrigues said she might refer the matter to the state police or the state attorney general if it looks as if state law was violated.

Debra Girvin, who is the Know Campaign's executive director, did not immediately return a call for comment. She said in an interview Wednesday that the goal of the project was to motivate people to vote by letting them know that their participation -- and their neighbors' participation -- could be held up for gentle scrutiny.

Her organization was just about to send the mailings when inquiries from reporters and another look at Virginia's laws prompted her to cancel the effort.

Under Virginia law, the Board of Elections can furnish lists of voters only to the courts, the Department of Motor Vehicles, bona fide political candidates, political parties, political action committees and nonprofit groups that promote voter education or registration. The law further restricts access to voting histories, prohibiting the Board of Elections from giving the histories to anyone except candidates, elected officials or political party chairmen. Those who do obtain the lists are also required to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, promising not to disseminate the information to those not authorized to have it.

In an interview Wednesday night, Girvin, a human resources consultant and Chesterfield resident, said her aim in using the voting histories for a mass mailing had simply been to motivate people to vote. She also said the project had been vetted by a lawyer.

"Below is a partial list of your recent voting history -- public information obtained from the Virginia State Board of Elections," the planned mailing said. "We have sent you this information as a public service because we believe that democracy only works when you vote."

Girvin said Wednesday that she purchased the voter rolls from a private company but declined to identify it. She also would not identify the source of the grants that funded the project because, she said, the mailing was canceled and the grantor's money will be returned.

There are various third-party vendors who typically analyze Board of Elections data at the request of clients who lawfully obtained the information from the Board of Elections, according to Rodrigues, Virginia's chief election officer.

Girvin said her inspiration for the Know Campaign came from a scientific study that explored voters' motivations.

In the study, three political scientists targeted more than 180,000 voters in Michigan, dividing them into a control group and four target groups. The control group members voted as they normally did. The four target groups received mailings leading up to the election.

One group got a letter every 11 days before a 2006 election, urging them to vote because it was their civic duty. The second group received a letter advising them that their voting habits were being observed. The third got a letter notifying them that they should know that their voting habits are a matter of public record. This group also received the 2004 presidential voting history of everyone in their household. People in the fourth group received a letter with their 2004 presidential voting history and also that of their neighbors.

Critics of the idea called it shaming people into voting. Others complained about an invasion of privacy, although the information is already public.

Girvin said Wednesday that she read about the study and thought that it might be an excellent way to involve more Americans in their democracy and hoped to test it in this year's gubernatorial race.

"I wish -- and I'm an idealistic person -- but I wish people would care more about who we're voting for and more about working through the democratic process," Girvin said. "I hate people on the right screaming, and I hate people on the left screaming, and I think there are a lot of people in the middle who are tired of not being heard. And I think they've given up."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company