‘Safe at Home’ Breached
New Mexico Survivors Participating in Confidentiality Address Program Have Personal Information Leaked
On July 22, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge James Browning in New Mexico, granted the motion for Voter Reference’s Preliminary Junction. Voter Reference is an organization centered around voters’ rights and government transparency to mitigate voter fraud. This motion has allowed Voter Reference to release and display New Mexico voters’ information for the time being. At the outset, protecting voter rights is an honorable intention. However, it disregards the safety of an already vulnerable group—Indigenous women survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
Stalking is a consistent pattern of unwanted behaviors and actions, leading a person to feel frightened and violated. According to the National Institute of Justice, 48.8% of Indigenous women have experienced some form of stalking and 11.6% have experienced it in the past year1. Stalking is one form of violence against women and the necessity to address this issue is ever-present.
Many aspects are not addressed when it comes to victim’s rights, and some are even less obvious than others, including the right to vote. How can transformative legislation be passed for survivor advocacy when survivors themselves are too afraid to come forward to vote? Registering to vote creates a dilemma for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The right to vote is one of the ways that Indigenous women can assert agency. However, the right to vote is taken away when the fear of being found is forefront.
To address the need for security and safety for survivors, New Mexico has, like 40 other states, created an Address Confidentiality Program called “Safe at Home” that allows survivors of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault to use the Secretary of State’s address to keep personal information private and confidential. Participants of the Program are assured of their safety and privacy while interacting with state agencies. Participants’ mail is forwarded to their addresses through the Program. “In this way, Safe at Home participants are at a reduced risk from being tracked using public records,” according to New Mexico Secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office2. These Programs are integral for survivors of stalking, domestic violence, and sexual assault because it allows some sense of control and security, without losing out on engaging in civil liberties.
Safety and security is threatened by organizations like Voter Reference, a501(c)(4) organization. Their goal is to bring transparency to the voting process and uphold voters’ rights by ensuring all election information is public. In New Mexico, Voter Reference aims to provide full name, year of birth, address, voter’s registration status, party affiliation, and voter’s district. Anyone with access to the Voter Reference website can look up any registered voter in that state, along with all the information provided.
On March 28, 2022, Voter Reference and one other plaintiff sued the New Mexico Secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, and the New Mexico Attorney General, Hector Balderas3, to release all New Mexico registered voters’ information on their website.
On July 22, 2022, Judge Browning granted Voter Reference’s request for a preliminary injunction, thus allowing the organization to upload and display voters’ registered information on their site, unless they are enrolled in the Safe at Home Program. However, for three days from July 26 to 29, Program participant’s information was displayed on VoteRef.com. The Secretary of State’s office worked with Voter Reference to successfully take down participants of the Safe at Home Program’s information. The Voter Reference Found. v. Balderas, 2022 case is ongoing.
The implications and consequences of publicizing voters’ personal information—specifically those of the survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking—may not be obvious to those who have allowed this situation to unfold. This is a gross violation of confidentiality and escalates the danger of re-victimization. The continuing safety of many survivors relies on keeping their location unknown to their violent perpetrators. There can be more violence and fatal consequences as a result of this case.
This violation of privacy under the guise of upholding voters’ rights only exacerbates the trauma survivors experience. How survivors cope and strive to find safety is an arduous journey. Unjustly, the onus of safety is placed solely on the individual who has been abused and victimized. When a violation such as this occurs, there’s no relief regardless of the outcome because the retraumatization has already happened.
One survivor in the Safe at Home Program, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared this statement: “For a long time, I stopped voting. I didn’t vote for many years because I was scared of being found and assaulted again. Changing my entire life to feel safe has been difficult for me. I’m barely getting back to a place where I can go out and show my face, and return to doing the things I love without debilitating fear. The moment I was told that my information was leaked, my first thought was to move immediately. I even spent the next few days with friends in an entirely different area in the state just in case. It feels like me trying to feel safe and joining the program was for nothing. Where is the acknowledgment and reassurance that this won’t happen again? What’s the point of staying in the Program if my information is already out there? What happens if something does happen to me? Who will answer if I get hurt?”
The case is ongoing and will likely take several months to complete. The Secretary of State’s office has worked with Voter Reference to take down the information of Safe at Home Program participants. However, this does not address the countless other survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking who may not have access to this Program. Although the information of participants of this Program is taken down, their information was online for three days. The fear and retraumatization that participants may have felt are not easily forgotten or healed from. Exercising the right to vote should not result in assault and trauma. Everyone has a right to safety.
New Mexico Secretary of State's Office Response
Alex Curtas, Director of Communications for the NM Secretary of State, gave the following statement in response to the breach:
“Our Office is disappointed in the judge’s decision that allowed the data to remain on the internet and we view it as a blow to protecting the privacy rights of every New Mexican voter. We are appealing the decision. Secretary Toulouse Oliver’s main concern, in this case, has always been to preserve the public’s trust in the voter registration process – and, by extension, the voting process in general – by ensuring the privacy of voter data with very limited exceptions. The fear now is that voters will be less likely to participate in our elections because their voting information – name, residential address, party affiliation, voting history, and year of birth – will be made easily available online for anyone to obtain.”
Curtas has also shared the webpage "Voting and Elections: Rumor vs. Reality" to address additional information regarding the publication of voter data: https://n8ve.net/jq43Svjp.