One in a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s voting system.

The Maine Democratic Party recently sent a mailing to voters telling them that the party knew they had asked for an absentee ballot but hadn’t returned it yet.

Party officials say the letter, which included two postage stamps for mailing the ballot, was meant to make voting easier during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But some were left wondering how the party knew so much about their voting record, knew they had asked for a ballot and knew they hadn’t returned it – although many received the letter before they even received their ballots.

“Remember, who you vote for is private, but whether or not you vote is a matter of public record,” warned the letter signed by Jonathen Asen, the party’s election coordinator.

So, how much does your political party know about your voting record and who else has access to that information? Here’s what you need to know.

My mailbox is being inundated with political messages. How do these organizations get my address?

Maine law allows political parties, candidates, political action committees and organizations working on voter turnout efforts to buy certain sets of data from the state’s Central Voter Registration System. The data in the record includes the address you use when you register to vote, your phone number and email address, if you provide one, and other valuable information, such as whether you participated in the most recent elections and – yes, even if you requested an absentee ballot.

The letter from the Maine Democratic Party states they know I requested an absentee ballot based on “public records.” Does that mean anybody can find out if I requested an absentee ballot?

Not necessarily. Under state law, most of the information contained in the Central Voter Registration System is confidential, but by using the data available for purchase and cross-referencing it to other publicly available records, party officials and campaign operatives can determine which voters have requested or cast absentee ballots.

So what records are publicly available? 

Maine’s Secretary of State’s Office weekly updates a public list that shows how many absentee ballots have been requested by municipalities. Each request is logged into the Central Voter Registration System and includes your specific voter identification number. “Thus, they can crosscheck the voter ID numbers and associate it with your name, to tell if you have requested/returned your absentee ballot. That is what they use for these mailings,” said Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

How much does the state charge for my “confidential” data?

That depends on how many voter records an entity is requesting.  Currently, the price to buy all the available data on the 1.06 million registered voters in Maine is $2,200. But candidates or campaigns can buy smaller lists based on a fee schedule with the lowest price being $11 for a list with one to 1,000 voter records.

Who can buy this data?

The law allows a broad array of individuals and organizations to purchase the data, including candidates for office, those who currently hold public office by election or appointment, political parties and those running issue-based campaigns – like ballot question initiatives or citizens’ veto campaigns.

What data can be included in what’s sold?

Beyond your basic contact information, those requesting data can ask to see your voter participation history for up to two elections, they can see if you changed anything on your voter registration card, including your name or party registration and they can see if you requested an absentee ballot.

Can I get any of this data as a voter?

You can, but only the data that’s on your own voter record.

How much does that cost?

It’s free. You only need to fill out a request form that includes your legal name, your date of birth, your daytime phone number, mailing address and email.

Is there anyway I can opt out of having the information on my voter records sold?

No. State law does not provide any provisions that allow a voter to keep his or her voter record information entirely confidential, according to John Brautigam, a Falmouth-based attorney and consultant who specializes in campaign finance and election law.

Brautigam said some voters are surprised to learn this, but notes that there have been no recent efforts in the Legislature to change how voter information is disclosed in Maine.

“I personally think that if the political parties can obtain access, then any member of the public should be able to obtain access,” Brautigam said.

And what about those stamps the Democrats sent in their mailing? I thought it was illegal to give something of value to encourage a person to vote.

Both state and federal political bribery laws prohibit paying somebody for their vote. But the stamps valued at 55 cents each – or $1.10 in total – would likely be viewed of only “nominal” value with little influence on the voter’s decision, Brautigam said.

Do you have a question about Maine’s election system or how your vote will be counted? Send it to [email protected]

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