We are happy to report that Sound Transit did not violate state election law over the summer when it released nearly 173,000 protected email addresses.
The allegation that the regional transit agency willfully used private information to promote Sound Transit 3, the Nov. 8 ballot measure seeking to expand light rail, has been deemed unfounded for a second time.
“Nothing to see here, folks” was the gist of what came out of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office this month. Deemed an “inadvertent” release of riders’ personal information, the case is now closed.
The AG’s office said releasing email information belonging to ORCA transit cardholders to the political consulting group Mass Transit Now was a mistake made during the routine course of the agency’s response to a public records request.
Mass Transit Now requested the Sound Transit subscriber list and used it to send an August email urging subscribers to support ST3. If you’re trying to sell a $54 billion transportation package to voters in three counties, the first people you want onboard your bandwagon are the daily users, the already converted.
It seems Sound Transit erroneously sent addresses contained in a dormant file left in the agency’s data system after a 2011 mass mailing.
The mistake could have stayed under wraps if not for a commuter who got an email from Mass Transit Now addressing him as “friend” and reminding him, “You love riding transit.”
Turns out he also loves his privacy. The Seattle man only used that email address for ORCA, so he suspected his personal information had been breached. He complained to the Seattle Times.
Enter Tacoma political consultant Conner Edwards, who lodged a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
After investigations by both the PDC and the AG’s office, it was determined no violation of the state Public Records Act had occurred; the mass email did not solicit donations, so no evidence could “support an allegation that Sound Transit staff took action intended to promote or oppose Mass Transit Now or the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure,” according to the AG’s findings.
Skeptics might want to file that under the letter B for baloney. It might not be strictly illegal, but Sound Transit never should have given out email addresses. According to the ORCA privacy statement, personal information of card members is supposed to be protected.
Cardholders were issued an apology and told their personal information had been deleted from political campaign files.
This was not Sound Transit’s only trip to the woodshed. PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson told the Seattle Times the transit agency was also asked to remove a question from an online survey it sent out earlier this year.
In a 16-question survey, No. 15 read, “please rate which makes you much more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to support the ST3 draft plan?”
The question stinks of something called message testing; it’s what professional pollsters do when trying to get a candidate elected, except they don’t use taxpayer money to do it. State law prohibits spending public funds for political purposes.
When the PDC brought the questionable question to Sound Transit’s attention, question No. 15 was promptly removed.
It’s great that Sound Transit wants community involvement, but research should be used to determine users’ transit needs, not what political messages they’ll approve.
Our endorsement of ST3 hasn’t changed: Pierce County must finally receive its share of a modern mass-transit system to take us into the 21st Century. But the road getting there needs to be honorable and straightforward.
Meantime, here’s a message polling question we can offer Sound Transit for free:
After personal information is disclosed to a large political campaign, are you a) somewhat more likely, b) somewhat less likely, or c) much less likely to trust an agency that wants you to approve an unprecedented sum of money for public transit?