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Editorial: Utah voter ID bill balances privacy, democracy

Voter bill is workable compromise

First Published Feb 18 2014 04:49 pm • Last Updated Feb 18 2014 04:49 pm

Let’s make voting records kinda hidden.

A couple weeks ago, we editorialized against a law to limit access to voter registration lists. Such lists have been public forever, but new concerns over privacy and identity theft have sprung up recently because someone has published a Utah voter list, including addresses and birth dates, on a web site.

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This has led to fears about elderly people who live alone or domestic abuse victims being easily found by criminals. We don’t dismiss those concerns, but we still had deep misgivings about election process where the public didn’t know who was voting. The sponsor of Senate Bill 36, Sen. Karen Mayne, worked with open-government advocates from the news media to find a compromise.

As originally drafted, Mayne’s bill allowed access to politicians, government workers, scholars and journalists. Allowing those groups was thought to be adequate to provide the kind of independent oversight that election processes need. But it left out the most important watchdogs: the public.

Utah has a fine records law in the Government Records Access and Management Act, and the public proved its love for GRAMA three years ago with a backlash against HB 477. The reality is that there are too many elections in too many places to leave election monitoring to a small group of journalists and scholars. Mayne added a provision for the public to use the records for "research" only.

The compromise tries to put more focus on what people do with the records and less on whether they have access. Everyone would be entitled to access the data for monitoring elections, but they would be prevented from using them for some commercial purpose (as the guy behind the web site has done) or illegal use. Requiring people to reveal intentions when they request public documents has a chilling effect on open government. This exception to the guiding principles of GRAMA should stay rare.

But Mayne’s amended bill is preferred to an alternative in the House to allow voters to "opt out" of making their information public, meaning that there would be no outside check on who is voting in Utah. This would deny that record to journalists, scholars or other watchdogs, and it would deny the record to the political parties that use the records to identify their own party members as well as other voters. (Would a body of politicians even pass that? We don’t want to find out.)

It’s worth noting that political parties, big and small, distribute the lists to candidates for office at all levels. Pollsters and political consultants also obtain the lists. So, even without the Mayne bill’s allowance for general research by the public, these lists are far from private.

Voting, by necessity, is a public act. That’s not to say the public gets to know how you voted. But the public does have the right to know who voted, or even who is registered to vote. That is necessary because election integrity is at the core of functioning democracy. How many other nations have autocratic rulers who stay in power with suspicious "elections"? Transparency is power to the people.

SB36 (Substitute 3) is a cautious balance of individual privacy and verifiable democracy. It gets our vote.


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