Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon last week put a barrier in the way of anyone seeking public records about voter registrations on her office website by requiring a search that includes an exact date of birth.
The modification is the first since the database was made searchable over the internet by the late Wendy Noren, clerk from 1982 to 2017, who wrote the software that maintains the county’s voter list. Previously, the search function only required a partial name to get a list of everyone who matched, providing their residential address, month and year of their birth and other information.
The list still allows a search on a partial name but will return only records that match the exact date of birth entered.
Lennon, who was sworn in Dec. 31, made the change without public notice and without raising the ease of searching as an issue in the 2018 campaign in which she defeated Noren’s appointed Republican replacement, Taylor Burks.
The change doesn’t restrict access to the database, which is a public record, Lennon said Friday in an interview. The list, with its data about when a voter has cast a ballot and other information including residential address, is still available through requests to her office, she said.
The search function is now more like the entire state database of about 3 million registrations available through Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office. That site also requires a specific residential address along with a name and date of birth for online searches.
The ease of search was “one of the most common things I heard when I was talking to voters during the campaign,” Lennon said. Those voters, she said, complained that it was too easy to access their public records.
“I feel that it is very important that voters are directed to their records specifically and voters retain a modicum of privacy,” Lennon said. “We recognize the information is publicly available under the law but because our website allows for asking for ballots and change of address, it is important their information is kept secure.”
Those functions were a major reason Noren fought then-Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in 2006 when she refused Carnahan’s demand to use the software provided by the state vendor.
The applications for an absentee ballot or change of address, as programmed by Noren, must have more verification than a simple request, Lennon acknowledged. To be processed, they must include other information known only to the voter, such as the last four digits of their Social Security number, she said.
“They could not tamper with voter registration,” Lennon said. “The website was not interfacing with the database. They could submit things through the website. It is exactly the same as if someone sent a postcard voter registration, we go through and make sure that when we enter it, it is not a duplicate and there are checks in place to verify.”
During his 18 months in office, Burks said in an interview, the way the search function worked was never an issue.
“I never got complaints about how easy it was to search our public records,” Burks said. “Our records are fairly easily accessible. I think it was the same reason that I kept it that way — Wendy was a huge advocate for transparency in our election. Fundamentally these are public records that our citizens have a right to access.”
Missourians who have been the victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking or other crimes who fear for their safety may keep their actual residential address out of public records through the Address Confidentiality Program operated by Ashcroft’s office. The protection covers driver’s licenses, public school records, court records and library cards, among other records, as well as voter registration.
Burks said he is disappointed there was no notice from Lennon she intended to make the change.
“I would hope that a change in the accessibility of our public records would be stated well before that occurred,” he said.
The websites of various county offices have search engines for their public records that reveal personal details. They include search links on the Assessor’s site that allows the public access to anyone’s list of real and personal property, the Collector’s site that allows visitors to view property values and tax statements and the Recorder of Deeds’ site that provides information about deeds, marriage licenses and other records.
None are set up so only the person whose information is contained in the record can see it.
Lennon said that because her database is about voter registration, information should only be available to the person whose information is part of the record. Her office, she said, will provide the database or any part of it as the law requires.
“I don’t think this is limiting public records,” Lennon said. “This is not a change from the way we have provided public information.”