MOBILE, ALABAMA – For one penny, a political candidate, or even a private company, can buy from the state the name, address, even cellular telephone number if a person submitted it, of any registered voter.
And for $30,000, it can get the whole database from the Secretary of State’s Office on all 3 million Alabama voters.
That news surprised Foley resident Joni Alexander, as she was cooking chicken cacciatore Monday for her husband, who was coming home for a lunch break, when her cell phone rang.
It was an automated message, sometimes referred to as a robo-call, trying to encourage her to vote for a mayoral candidate.
“We get about 1 million robo-calls on the home phone, but I have never gotten one on my cell phone,” said Alexander, a retired teaching assistant. “I just instantly got mad and hung up. Then, after a few minutes, I thought, ‘How in the world did they get my cell phone number?’”
Alexander said she called the number back and left a message. Eventually, she learned that the candidate had bought her telephone number from Secretary of State Beth Chapman’s office, which, in accordance with Alabama law, sells the information to help fund its voter registration program.
For one penny per voter, the information is available in digital format. But if someone wants a printed page, it’s $1 per voter.
The information that can be bought includes the voter’s full name, address, phone number, date of birth, race, gender and 10 years’ worth of voting history. The list can be honed down so, for example, a candidate for county commission could buy information on all the voters in his or her district.
Alexander said that when she registered to vote, she wrote in her cell phone number, never imagining that information would be sold. She said she expects private businesses to sell such information, but not the government.
The state earns about $45,000 a year by selling this information, according to Deputy Secretary of State Emily Thompson. That money helps pay the salary of the state’s supervisor of voter registration, as well as for technology.
“There are two sides to the coin,” Thompson said. “Voters think the bar is too low, and some are shocked when they learn that we can sell their information. Then, the people who want the information sometimes don’t want to have to pay for it.”
Mostly, political candidates buy the information, to make phone calls or send brochures in the mail, said Ed Packard, supervisor for voter registration with the Secretary of State’s Office. But occasionally a business, such as a real estate firm or an insurance agency, will buy the data.
Packard said a law was passed when the statewide voter file was created in the late 1980s allowing the information to be sold to candidates or organizations sponsoring get-out-the-vote efforts. Sometime later, he said, the law was expanded allowing “pretty much anybody” to purchase the list.
Officials in the Secretary of State’s Office tried to change the law so that information on victims of domestic violence could keep their information secret. But that was never approved by the Alabama Legislature, Packard said.
“Every now and then, we do get phone calls, not a high number of them, from folks who are not pleased their information is for sale,” Packard said. “We tell them it’s state law. They’ll have to talk to their legislator about it.”
Packard said he’s heard complaints from some buyers, who have said Alabama charges more for this information than many other states.
According to a recent story on Fox News, 47 states sell — or even give away for free — voter information, some for as little as $25 for the whole statewide voter roll.
Alexander said she understands why candidates would want this information. But, she said, she wished the state would put a disclaimer on registration forms, saying the information could be sold.
“Virtually anybody can request this information,” she said. “I don’t like it. I just don’t like it.”