The Salt Lake Tribune in recent weeks has received a number of telephone calls and emails from readers concerned about utvoters.com, a privately operated website that makes Utah voter-registration records available to the public for free.
Indignation expressed by voters unhappy those searchable records include detailed personal information such as birth dates, addresses, political party affiliations and dates on which ballots were cast has prompted state Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, to sponsor legislation that would restrict access to the records, which under state law are public and can be purchased from the lieutenant governor’s office for $1,050.
Mayne’s SB36, if passed by the 2014 Legislature, would limit access to the records to those seeking them for "political, scholarly, journalistic or governmental purposes." Posting the records online, reproducing them in print or any other format or using them for commercial purposes or to harass someone would be a class B misdemeanor, according to the bill.
"We have to make voters secure," Mayne told The Tribune last week.
It’s understandable that utvoters.com raises concerns, even prompting some Utahns to suggest they won’t register to vote unless the law changes.
But as always when government records are involved, the goal must be to balance individuals’ right to privacy with the public’s right to information.
Despite privacy concerns, Utahns have a very real interest in voter information remaining public.
The Tribune, on the public’s behalf, routinely advocates for open government. We want government records to remain public so journalists and the public at large can monitor them and when necessary, use the information we collect to hold our government accountable.
With regard to voter-registration records in particular, keeping them public safeguards the integrity of our voting system and protects against voter fraud. Independent examination and verification of those records is the surest way to determine registered voters are real people who’ve properly registered and are voting in the districts where they live.
Utah currently faces few allegations of voter fraud, but it is cited as a concern in some states where proponents say new or proposed voter identification laws aim to prevent fraud. In those states, access to voter-registration records for verification purposes is as important to those who see fraud as a problem as it is to those who believe such laws are little more than an attempt to disenfranchise elderly, poor and minority voters.
The Tribune will follow Mayne’s proposal as it advances. As with any attempt to impose new restrictions on public records, the devil may be in the details.
As always, we will do our part to ensure the public retains access to information needed to hold government accountable.
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