Utah legislators in recent weeks made a good-faith effort to address concerns that public voter information leaves voters vulnerable to identity theft and harassment. Their solution only partially limits access to the information, and that is appropriate.
Utah voter information — names, addresses, birth dates, party affiliation and the elections the voters voted in — has long been public without causing much concern. Public access is necessary so that citizens could independently verify that the people on voter rolls are real people who really live where the lists say they do without just taking the government’s word for it. That worked well for decades, but a storm erupted recently when an out-of-state person legally obtained the entire Utah voter list from the lieutenant governor’s office and posted it online. That triggered calls to county clerks from people who felt that is a violation of their privacy, and many said they would stop registering to vote. Some had very real fears about being found by stalkers.
So legislators went to work on a solution, and they found several devils in the details. The resulting Senate Bill 36 — the product of five large revisions over the course of the legislative session — is an amalgam of exceptions.
For instance, any member of the public still will be able to obtain the data base of names, addresses, party affiliation and voting history, but not the birth dates. Even the out-of-state guy with the web site will still have access to that information — minus the birth dates — just as he does now.
The law does add some helpful language that allows a few voters to appeal to their county clerks or the lieutenant governor to not release their information if they can show they face a likely risk of harm, such as abuse victims who have protective orders. This would offer real protection to a very small number of voters, and having their information private will not prevent the public from legitimate monitoring of the registration and election processes.
While voter birth dates will not be available to everyone, they still will be available to an exceedingly large group: banks, insurance companies, health care providers, government agencies, political parties, as well as agents, employees and independent contractors of all those entities. And the political parties are allowed to distribute the data, including birth dates, to all their candidates. In other words, those birth dates still will be in the hands of thousands of people who can use them for marketing purposes.
Voter information must be public. There is no other way to maintain the public’s trust in the electoral process. And there has never been a case of harm traced to that information. Nevertheless, SB36 may give some Utahns more peace of mind without costing the election process its credibility.