WDC Asks AG for Opinion on Voter Privacy Law

Problem is rooted in Accenture’s inability to develop voter registration system that works while complying with all state election laws

July 31, 2006

Madison - The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign today asked Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager to review a recent state Elections Board directive to local election officials to ignore a state voter privacy law and urged the attorney general to issue a clarifying opinion about the status of the law and whether the Elections Board is at liberty to instruct election officials throughout Wisconsin to disregard it.

In a July 21 memo, the Board said the registration identification number assigned to each voter “is not treated as confidential” and “is a public record and must be provided upon request” to individuals and organizations interested in obtaining voter information stored in the database.

“The problem with the Elections Board’s position is that it is against state law,” WDC executive director Mike McCabe wrote in the letter to Lautenschlager. McCabe notes in the letter that the law in question says only designated election officials may view confidential voter registration identification numbers.

McCabe called the Elections Board directive the “state bureaucratic equivalent of a presidential signing statement indicating which part of the law the Elections Board will enforce and which part the agency intends to ignore.”

An Elections Board official has called the voter privacy law the result of a “drafting error” and said the law should be changed next year. McCabe wrote in his letter that the law has been in effect for more than two years and as recently as five weeks ago the Elections Board was advising local election officials of the confidentiality requirements under the law without expressing any concern about the way the law was written.

The Elections Board’s newfound concern about the law is the “classic red herring, used by the Board to obscure the larger and more important issue – the incompetence of the global outsourcing firm chosen by the Board to develop the computerized statewide voter registration system,” McCabe wrote.

“It was not until the Elections Board discovered it could not find a way to comply with the voter privacy law and remove the confidential voter registration numbers without making its computerized system inoperative that concerns were raised about supposed flaws in the law,” the letter states.

“The way Accenture’s system is currently configured, it does not function properly if the voter registration numbers are removed. That is not the fault of the state voter privacy law. That is the fault of an inept multinational corporation that can’t seem to program its way out of a paper bag,” McCabe wrote.

Letter

July 31, 2006

Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager

Wisconsin Department of Justice
P.O. Box 7857
Madison , WI 53707-7857

Dear Attorney General Lautenschlager:

I am writing to request that your office conduct a thorough review of the state Elections Board’s recent directive to local election officials to ignore a state voter privacy law and issue a clarifying opinion about the status of this law and whether the Elections Board is at liberty to instruct election officials throughout Wisconsin to disregard it.

In a memo dated July 21, 2006 (pdf file), the Board says the registration identification number assigned to each voter “is not treated as confidential” and “is a public record and must be provided upon request” to individuals and organizations with an interest in obtaining voter information stored in the database.

The problem with the Elections Board’s position is that it is against state law. Section 6.36(1)(b)(a) of Wisconsin’s statutes clearly says no person “other than an employee of the board, a municipal clerk, a deputy clerk, an executive director of a city board of election commissioners, or a deputy designated by the executive director” may view voter registration identification numbers.

From our vantage point, the memo instructing local election officials to break the law protecting confidential voter information is the state bureaucratic equivalent of a presidential signing statement indicating which part of the law the Elections Board will enforce and which part the agency intends to ignore.

In response to concerns raised by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign about the Board’s directive on voter privacy, a state Elections Board representative told The Associated Press that the law making voter registration identification numbers confidential is the result of a “drafting error” and should be changed next year. The Board’s July 21 memo makes it very clear the agency plans to ignore the law in the meantime.

It should be noted that this voter privacy law is more than two years old. Elections Board executive director Kevin Kennedy played a significant role in crafting the proposal, which was introduced in October 2003 as Assembly Bill 600. Incidentally, AB 600 contained the exact same voter privacy language that is now being characterized as a “drafting error” when it was introduced. Over the next five months, as AB 600 wound its way through numerous committees and both houses of the Legislature, no one from the Elections Board or any legislative service agency or legislative office or, for that matter, any member of the Legislature appears to have raised concerns about including voter registration identification numbers on the list of items deemed to be confidential voter information.

AB 600 was signed into law by the governor as 2003 Wisconsin Act 265 in April 2004. Since its enactment, no concerns were raised about any “drafting error” in the law for more than two years. In fact, as recently as June 23, 2006 the Elections Board was advising local election officials of the confidentiality requirements under Section 6.36(1)(b)(a) of the statutes, including the privacy protection of voter registration identification numbers, without expressing any concern about the way the law reads (pdf file).

It was not until the Elections Board discovered it could not find a way to comply with the voter privacy law and remove the confidential voter registration numbers without making its computerized system inoperative that concerns were raised about supposed flaws in the law.

The alleged “drafting error” is the classic red herring, used by the Board to obscure the larger and more important issue – the incompetence of the global outsourcing firm chosen by the Board to develop the computerized statewide voter registration system required by federal law. Flaws in the system being developed by this company, Accenture LLP, are behind the Board’s decision to defy the law.

The way Accenture’s system is currently configured, it does not function properly if the voter registration numbers are removed. That is not the fault of the state voter privacy law. That is the fault of an inept multinational corporation that can’t seem to program its way out of a paper bag. Accenture did not take into account the specifics of Wisconsin’s election laws and failed to tailor the software programming to the state’s laws and needs. And the Elections Board failed to supervise Accenture’s development of the software in order to make certain the purchased voter registration software complied with all applicable Wisconsin laws.

This is not the first time serious questions have been raised about the product Accenture is trying to pawn off on the state of Wisconsin. Officials from both Accenture and the Elections Board have taken great pains to justify the $14 million price tag on the contract by saying the company is developing computer software tailor-made for registering voters in Wisconsin. The Democracy Campaign discovered last October that the Accenture software was not as customized as advertised. Accenture’s program contained data fields for things like party affiliation and whether a voter owns property, even though such voter information is not collected in Wisconsin and is incompatible with voter registration practices spelled out in Wisconsin law. Those data fields have been deactivated.

Now we have this latest evidence that Accenture is selling Wisconsin a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf product that is not customized to our state’s needs and is not even capable of complying with Wisconsin’s election laws.

It was bad enough that Wisconsin missed the January 1, 2006 federal deadline for completion of a computerized statewide voter registration list and that the system being developed for the state by the global outsourcing firm Accenture still does not work to this day. But now the Elections Board is covering for flaws in Accenture’s system by telling local election officials to disregard a state voter privacy law.

Such counsel is grossly irresponsible and puts local election clerks in significant legal jeopardy. Election officials are prohibited under Section 12.13(2) of Wisconsin statutes from violating their duties established under the state’s election laws, including those duties required by Section 6.36(1)(b)(a). Violations constitute a Class I Felony punishable by imprisonment of up to three and a half years, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.

We ask you for an official determination of the Department of Justice on the validity and applicability of the law including voter registration identification numbers among the information that is treated as confidential voter information. If your office determines the law is valid, as we believe it obviously is, and you determine the Elections Board is not at liberty to ignore it, as we believe it clearly is not, then we ask you to order the Board to follow the law and rescind its July 21 memo instructing local officials to disregard it.

Clearing up this matter once and for all will allow the focus of attention to shift back to where it rightly belongs – on the inability of the Elections Board and Accenture to complete and implement a statewide voter registration system that both meets the needs of our state and complies with all applicable Wisconsin election laws.

Thank you for your consideration of our request.

Sincerely,

Mike McCabe
Executive Director