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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Senate plan would block the public from some voter data

OLYMPIA – There is a battle over birthdays brewing in the Capitol, with reporters lined up against legislators.

Senate Democrats want to change the way the state records voter registrations so that a voter’s birthdate isn’t public information. They want to take out the month and the day and just leave in the year.

This may seem like a small thing to some, maybe even a reasonable thing, considering 21st-century privacy concerns. But it’s a big thing to reporters and others who use the voter database to find people and verify who they are, like maybe a bus driver who has several DUIs or a coach who was let go from a school on one side of the state for inappropriate conduct and just got hired by a local district.

But I’m against it because of Cpl. Walter Raymond Hahn, serial No. 20942524, and his sister.

Hahn was in a Washington National Guard unit that was activated shortly before Pearl Harbor and sent to Guadalcanal at the end of 1942. A few weeks after arriving on the island, Hahn was killed at a place known as Galloping Horse Hill. He was buried temporarily on the hill but his body, or what was left of it after a shell exploded near the grave, was later retrieved and eventually buried in a military cemetery in San Francisco. At some point during the battle, the first burial or the exhumation, Hahn and his dog tag were separated.

Sixty years later, Ian Webb, an Australian tourist on Guadalcanal, bought a handful of souvenirs from some kids who said they found them in a gully near a hill after a big rainstorm. One of them was Hahn’s dog tag.

Webb spent several years researching Hahn in hopes of getting the dog tag back to a relative. He tracked him to Spokane through military records, but by early 2009 he had hit a wall. At that point, he did what many people do in similar situations: He contacted the newspaper. The email wound up in my inbox, because I covered the military.

After exchanging emails, Webb sent me the dog tag, which was dinged up but readable.

Tracking Walter Hahn was a challenge, but census records showed his family was in Spokane in the 1920s and 1930s. He had a brother, Ted, and a sister, Dorothea. The City Directory showed his mother, Clara, was still here during the 1930s, but his father was gone. Eventually Clara married Paul Hoffman, a soldier at Fort Wright, who like Walter and Ted was eventually killed in the war.

By 2009, it was a safe bet that Clara was also dead. But what about Dorothea? She could be alive, but there was no Dorothea Hahn anywhere in Washington.

About this point, you’re probably saying, “What the heck does any of this have to do with birthdates on the voter database?” Here’s what: By knowing Dorothea’s birthdate from the census and other records, and because she had a not-too-common first name, I was able to ask the folks at the secretary of state’s office to run a query to see if any Dorotheas with that birthdate lived in Washington. One thing reporters know about the Greatest Generation is that they are pretty great at voting.

There was a Dorothea King in Cashmere who, fortunately, had a listed phone number. I called and asked, was her maiden name Hahn? Yes, she said. Did she have a brother named Walter who was killed in the war? They called him by his middle name, Raymond, but yes.

Are you sitting down? Yes. I have his dog tag; would you like to have it?

Explaining to Dorothea Hahn King how I had her brother’s dog tag took a while. Her decision that she’d love to have it took no time at all. A few days later I drove to Cashmere to hand it to her.

“It just blows your mind when you think, ‘What are the chances of this finding its way back to me after all these years?’ ” she said as she held the battered tag in her hand.

Few reporters are math whizzes, and I don’t know how to calculate what the chances were in 2009. I can calculate them without birthdates in the voter database: zero.

You might say this is a rare, isolated instance, which it is. But reporters use the voter database to track and verify many things. So do people who are challenging whether someone is registered and legally eligible to vote.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman believes in keeping the full date-of-birth information in the interest of government transparency.

They were made part of the public record after the razor-thin governor’s race between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi that went to a second recount, and some voter registrations were being challenged.

At the time, the state tried to verify the registration of a Josh Brown in King County with just a birth year, Wyman said. There were six, including the Seahawks’ place kicker, born in the same year.

In the 13 years since the full birthdates have been in the database – which is regularly requested by candidates and political parties as well as journalists – Wyman said Friday she knows of no reports of identity theft from that information.

She was talking by phone from Washington, D.C., where she was attending a conference on cybersecurity for secretaries of state. Birthdates in voter databases were not one of the big topics of concern, she said.

Exempting the month and day of a voter’s birthdate from disclosure under the Public Records Act is part of the automatic voter registration bill that passed the Senate recently. It’s not part of the bill the House passed on the same topic and wasn’t part of the original Senate bill, either. The exemption was slipped into a third rewrite of that bill, without a public hearing, just before the Transportation Committee voted on it.

What does the Transportation Committee have to do with voter records? It had jurisdiction because automatic registration would be tied to getting an enhanced driver’s license.

Wyman supports automatic voter registration, but not pulling the month and day of a voter’s birthdate from the Public Records Act. “I don’t like it when I have to tell people they can’t have the information I have,” she said.

The change in the bill got a few comments on the Senate floor before it passed on a Saturday afternoon, not long after Senate Democrats pushed through another public records exemption for public employee birthdates in state records.

The state employee exemption was sold by Senate Democrats partly as a way to prevent identity theft, although some Republicans are convinced it’s a way to keep anti-union types from contacting government workers in an effort to jawbone them into opting out of the union.

Wyman doesn’t think the two bills are connected. Voter birthdates didn’t become an issue with the public until the Trump commission on voter fraud began asking the states for voter records last year and people realized it was available, she said.

But there’s something legislators should remember about the voter database before they try to sell this change as some huge privacy protection for the public. Candidates, political parties, journalists and other people all over the state have copies of the current and past voter databases going back to the mid-2000s. Even if the House passes the Senate bill as is, and Gov. Jay Inslee signs it, the birthdates aren’t going to magically disappear from those copies. So whatever protection they think they’re providing will go only to new voters.

Lawmakers might want to consider that residents of Washington – whether they are voters or not – are more at risk for identity theft from the big data breaches like Equifax that have other unique identifying information that the public can’t get from the voter database.