Brendan Steinhauser, a political strategist living in Austin, uses the state’s voter file all the time.
“The voter file is quite simply a list of voters who are registered to vote,” he explains. “You can you also obtain their voting history to see if they have voted in past elections.”
He runs political campaigns for candidates and non-profits across the country at Steinhauser Strategies. Steinhauser says he uses the file to figure out who to target when he’s trying to get votes for a candidate. For example, Steinhauser pulls up a list on his laptop he created for a statehouse race. It’s a list of roughly 20,000 Asian-American Republicans.
“And it shows you the name, it shows you their address, their ZIP code, their phone number,” he says.
Steinhauser says this file mostly contains basic information, but everyone who uses this data agree to some rules.
“You can’t use the voter file for commercial purposes,” Steinhauser explains. “You can’t just spam people or try to use it for nefarious purposes. You do have to make sure you use it for political purposes – what it’s meant to be used for.”
This is why groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP filed a lawsuit last week aimed at preventing the Texas Secretary of State from handing that information over to the administration.
“Texas provides very clear protections of privacy to ensure that voter registration data is not being misused,” says Myrna Perez with the Brennan Center.
She says once Texas hands over the voter file to the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity it will likely become public record. The federal commission is also asking for more than just that file. They want additional information, such as the last four digits of social security numbers, too.
Perez explains that federal commissions have to abide by federal transparency laws, which – in this case – would be in conflict with privacy protections in Texas law.
“It’s impossible to enforce that,” Perez says. “What would stop a company from taking that list and sending promotional material from everyone on that list? The commission has no way of knowing how that information was being used. They would not know who is accessing it now.”
Steinhauser argues people are actually handing over way more information to companies online. For example, he says information political strategists can get from Facebook is way more useful to campaigns. He says emails, which aren’t in the voter file, are also better for reaching out to voters who tend to move or stop using their landline after a while.
However, Perez and voting groups suing the state argue that’s beside the point. Perez says state lawmakers decided in the past the information in the voter file is worth protecting and says handing over that information undermines that.