New voter privacy law hurts Utah political parties, so they want it changed

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mailed in ballots speed through a ballot sorting machine that can process up to 19,000 an hour, taking pictures of the signature on the exposed affidavit and reading the bar code that shows a voter has returned their ballot for immediate confirmation at the Ballot Center in Salt Lake County, Oct. 30, 2018.

The chairmen of the Utah Democratic and Republican parties don’t often testify together for the same bill. But they joined Wednesday to ask the Legislature to change a 2018 law that has led to 1 in 8 Utah voters choosing to prevent public release of his or her voter registration data.

It means political parties don’t know who many of their members are.

That “data is vitally important as we try to contact voters and encourage them to vote,” Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant told the Legislature’s Government Operations Interim Committee.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown says his party has an even bigger problem. It allows only registered Republicans to participate in caucus meetings that elect convention delegates. But it now has no way to know if those who show up truly are members. “How do we deal with that?”

Brown added that election officials report that among people who are newly registering or reregistering, “about half of them are checking that box” to keep records private. So, Merchant added, “It’s going to make it more and more difficult for us to reach voters.”

That comes after The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier that 12.4% of voters overall have now used the new law to make their voter records private. So their names, birthdates, addresses, phone numbers, party affiliation and when or if they vote are not in public databases sold by the state.

Brown told lawmakers, “You need that information” to identify and reach voters in their own elections.

But Ron Mortensen — an activist who helped pass the law (and is a controversial nominee for a U.S. State Department post to oversee refugee and migration issues) — gave them a personal reason not to support a change.

Before the hearing, he gave many members a handout listing websites that buy and post information from the state voter registration database. “I had several of them come up to me afterward to say they found their information online. They weren’t pleased,” Mortensen said.

He helped pass the law by saying the state database puts people at risk, including victims of domestic abuse or those who are just in the public eye. He noted that when he was in Iraq as a foreign service agent, terrorist groups urged allies to target the families of U.S. military members back at home — and he discovered they could be found easily because of the voter database.

“No one has a right to tell anyone they cannot vote unless they give their information to someone else,” Mortensen said. He urged allowing parties to identify members by allowing voters as they register online to be connected automatically to their party to give contact information if they choose.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, told the committee he is working on legislation that he hopes will protect vulnerable people, but still allow parties and others access to voter records. He urged the committee to revisit the topic again later this fall when bills are drafted.

Keeping these records private also undermines public opinion polling, he said, by making it harder to identify registered voters, and may hurt efforts by news media or academics to investigate voter fraud.

Anderegg worried that perhaps “we’re actually inadvertently creating some voter suppression because we are not able to find out more about who likely voters are, and are unable to get them energized by educating them and helping inform the electorate so that they show up on Election Day.”