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Every day, Katherine thinks about addresses. For more than a decade, hers has been a breadcrumb for the man who stalks her.
When she earned her degree, the school asked for an address. When she buys something online, the retailer requires an address. When she attends a conference, the host asks for an address. When she files her tax returns, the IRS requires her address. When she registered to vote, the county asked for an address.
Each exchange leaves traces that could lead him to her. Just as quickly, she tries to wipe them away.
This daily burden led Katherine, whose real name The Beacon withheld to protect her, to Missouri’s Safe at Home program, an address confidentiality program meant to protect people and their families who’ve experienced domestic abuse, sexual violence, trafficking, stalking and other crimes.
But the program — especially for registered voters — lacks a basic safeguard provided in many other states, including Kansas: Complete exclusion from public voter data. Furthermore, if a person registered to vote before enrolling in Missouri’s program, their information isn’t scrubbed once they do.
In a recent analysis of Missouri’s public voter registration database, The Beacon found the names and addresses of at least 350 people currently in the Safe at Home program in old voter data. Nearly 200 of those people are still registered in the county listed in their old records.
Until her interview with The Beacon, Katherine said she didn’t know her information was available in those old lists.
After The Beacon shared its findings with Maura Browning, the Missouri secretary of state’s spokesperson, Browning said the office can’t retroactively scrub names and addresses from old voter records.
But, she said, they would commit to screening people who request those records, though she doesn’t know yet what that screening process will look like.
“The law that creates the Safe at Home program specifically says that the address confidentiality applies to new records,” Browning said. “And so there is nothing in the law that would indicate we are supposed to go back in time.”
However, Missouri’s Sunshine Law, which protects access to public records, may not allow for requesters to be screened for intent, legal experts say, leaving people like Katherine still vulnerable to their abusers.
How the program works
As one of more than 40 address confidentiality programs across the U.S., Missouri’s Safe at Home program has served more than 6,000 people since it began in 2007.
The program provides an official substitute address and a mail-forwarding service. When someone who has experienced abuse and continues to fear for their safety applies and is accepted, they’ll receive a designated address in lieu of their own to use for daily paperwork — everything from registering to vote to paying certain utility bills. Their first-class, legal and certified mail, too, will be sent first to this address and then forwarded to their homes. In 2018, the program also began serving people who live with people who’ve been abused.
Missouri’s program doesn’t guarantee confidentiality. The website is explicit: Safe at Home is “one piece of a comprehensive safety plan,” and the program does not “remove or delete existing public records.” The “best use” of the program occurs when a person has moved or is moving somewhere unknown to their abuser — to an address that’s not already part of a public record.
“You have to make that break,” Browning said. “And so if you are entering the program, it is really a responsibility of that participant to move to a different address in order to protect themselves.”
But for people like Katherine and her family, moving — or moving again — can be hard, if not impossible.
Relocation resources ‘very limited’
When they moved to Missouri in 2014, they didn’t try to apply for the Safe at Home program because Katherine thought she wouldn’t qualify. After reading the wording on the program’s promotional materials, she said her own circumstances didn’t feel dire enough.
Once she connected with a woman who’d been through similar abuse, Katherine saw her own experience more clearly.
“I just always thought of it as, I’ve got to try to hide where I am,” she said. “I don’t want somebody to know. I had not thought about it from the angle of what the other person was doing to me, which was continual stalking.”
She thinks people who’ve been abused often try to minimize what they’ve been through: “They’re trying to still get on with their lives.” And the dearth of public conversations about domestic violence, stalking, human trafficking and other crimes keeps these topics taboo in a society “where people talk about just about everything.”
Because Katherine didn’t enroll in the Safe at Home program when she first moved, records from the years she spent in Missouri before joining the program are public.
“What we would have to do is literally pick up and move again,” she said. “And we’ve talked about that.”
Everyday obstacles — like switching school districts or leaving behind a tight-knit social network — can hinder a person from moving, according to Jennifer Carter Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
For others, though, the question is money. And in-state resources that provide relocation funding are “very limited,” she said.
Missouri’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Program — administered as a last resort through the state’s Department of Public Safety — helps people who’ve been abused pay for expenses like counseling. But unlike programs in other states like Illinois, Missouri’s fund doesn’t cover relocation expenses.
“There’s always this dilemma of, do you add a bunch of things to the program? But then you have to start denying people because there’s not enough funding,” Carter Dochler said.
Private donors may also fund a person’s moving expenses, she said. Still, when the onus is on a person who’s been abused to move, it can feel unfair: “Why is the burden on them to have to start all over again elsewhere?”
Katherine said it like this: “I won’t say (the system) protects the perpetrator, but it doesn’t help the victim.”
To change the system, though, requires a law — and changing the law requires a vote.
What the law says about public voter data
But states differ in how they manage those lists — and who gets to access them.
Keeping those records public is a good thing, according to Jean Maneke, a Kansas City-based attorney who represents the Missouri Press Association. Not only do public voter records help journalists stay accurate, but political parties use them “because they want to be able to encourage people to exercise their right to vote.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Maneke said. “Everybody needs a little encouragement to get out the vote.”
Any person can request access to those records, usually for a fee. If the person’s request appears to increase “public understanding” of how the government works, the secretary of state’s office may decide to charge a smaller fee or waive the fee altogether. Otherwise, legal experts say, Missouri’s Sunshine Law doesn’t allow the office to reject a request because of the requestor’s identity or purpose.
“The last time I looked, no, we don’t have provisions for screening,” said Sandy Davidson, professor emerita at the University of Missouri and an expert in communications law.
“So if anybody asked you, ‘Why do you want to use this record?’ you can say, ‘To paper my bathroom — I thought it would be interesting reading,’ or, ‘Because I think you’re a crook and I want to prove it.’ It’s an illegitimate question under Sunshine Law. And that’s a protection to the requestor.”
Not only is it a protection to the requestor, it’s a protection to the public, according to Maneke. She said a screening process would go against “the whole idea.”
“These are not the public body’s records,” she said. “These are the public’s records.”
Browning said the office would address the legality of the new screening process the “next time (they) receive a request for historical voter registration lists,” which doesn’t happen often, she said.
Missouri’s voter registration law explicitly allows the residential address listed in the public voting records of certain people, including “victims of domestic violence and abuse” with an order of protection, to be closed. But that statute only applies while the order of protection is effective, not for records that existed before it, according to Carter Dochler. Even if it did, it wouldn’t apply to people in the Safe at Home program who don’t have an order of protection.
The remedy, then, is in the law, said Jonathan Groves, department chair of communication at Drury University and former president of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition.
“In this case, where you’ve got this kind of gray area and you’ve gotten something that’s sort of fallen through the cracks, it’s really the legislators who must look at it and say, ‘If you’re in any way, shape or form part of Safe at Home, we have somewhat of an obligation to make sure your name and address don’t appear in any of our public records,’” Groves said. “But given the limited resources of state governments these days, they probably don’t have the resources to pull that off.”
The secretary of state’s office takes at least one snapshot each month of voter registration data, according to Browning. The September snapshot contained more than 4 million rows. “There are over 70 electronic files” in old records, she said. “There are over 130 CDs, probably floppy disks, that contain that information.”
Since the Safe at Home program began, she said, the names and addresses of people in the program haven’t been retroactively removed from past voter records — not under current Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, nor under former Democratic Secretaries of State Jason Kander or Robin Carnahan.
“I don’t think anyone would’ve foreseen that a bad actor could be creative enough to find an address through the voter registration system,” Browning said.
How Kansas’ system works
But just beyond Missouri’s western border, there’s no trace of anyone in Kansas’ Safe at Home program in the state’s public voter database.
In fact, they’re “never included on any dataset output from our office,” said Katie Koupal, spokesperson for the Kansas secretary of state.
When a person enrolls in the Kansas Safe at Home program and registers to vote, they’re added to a database that’s separate from Kansas’ centralized, public voter records, according to Kansas Administrative Regulations. If they’ve already registered to vote and then enroll in the Safe at Home program, they’re then removed from that voter database.
The office doesn’t maintain periodic snapshots of voter data — it’s a live, regularly changing dataset, so when a person is removed from the voter list, there’s no old data to scrub.
Even if there were, Kansas makes provisions for existing records. Whereas Missouri law requires government agencies to accept a participant’s substitute address “when creating a new public record,” Kansas law requires it in new public records “or amending or updating an existing record.”
Back in Missouri, Katherine is still in hiding.
Before she and her family enrolled in Missouri’s Safe at Home program, they had already uprooted, leaving their community behind in another state. When they left, they didn’t tell friends or family where they were going. Since then, they’ve gone to “every other length” to keep their information safe, she said.
She’s spent thousands of dollars trying to wipe the internet of her presence. When she has an opportunity to opt out of sharing her data, she does. She’s sought and received an order of protection, still in effect. At one point, her family maintained at least five P.O. boxes across two states to hinder her stalker’s progress.
“It sounds very elaborate, and it gets kind of crazy after a while,” she said, “but when you don’t have a way to confidently protect your address, that’s what you do.”
The Safe at Home program has been, for her and her family, a provider of “some sense of normalcy.”
“As a person who has lived with this now for this long and been trying to hide where I’m at for so long, it’s a relief to actually be able to give an address and know that that address can’t be tracked back to me,” Katherine said.
Her old voter registration is just one record, and others exist — she expects the man who stalks her to use them to find her again. Still, she said, “when you’re in this situation, any document where you can have that information taken away, that’s a big deal.”
Alexis Allison is a freelance data journalist in Columbia, Missouri.