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House approves bill to keep voters' email addresses private

TALLAHASSEE — Email addresses of voters will be secret under a bill the House passed and sent to the Senate Thursday.

The House voted 114-1 to create the public records exemption, despite the opposition of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government watchdog group backed by many of Florida's newspapers.

Lawmakers said they are concerned about protecting voters from being inundated by candidates and political committees that obtain their email addresses.

The House bill (HB 249) is sponsored by Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka. A related bill allows county election supervisors to give voters an option: They could get sample ballots on their personal computers rather than through the mail, and their email addresses will remain confidential.

"The whole intent is to get more people to sign up for sample ballots over the Internet," Nelson said. "If you sign up for a sample ballot, that ought to be kept confidential."

Democrats agreed.

"I think we should limit public records exemptions, but at the same time I think people shouldn't be inundated with spam emails," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

The First Amendment Foundation warned that the bill's original wording was so broad that it would shield email addresses of registered voters held by any government agency, not just those held by elections officials.

Nelson added an amendment to specify that the secrecy covers email addresses "obtained for the purpose of voter registration," and said he did so to address the foundation's concerns.

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen called the bill "nonsense" and said the Legislature's statement of necessity, a legal requirement for any new public records exemption, was "speculative at best." That statement said that a public email address of a voter "could be misused and could result in voter fraud."

In a letter to legislative leaders opposing the bill, Petersen dismissed the argument by some lawmakers that people will be less likely to vote if their email addresses are open to the public.

Florida now has more than 12 million registered voters, "and it's doubtful that voters view Florida's public records laws as an obstacle to voting," Petersen wrote.

Under current law, most voters' addresses, dates of birth and party affiliations are public, as well as how often they have voted. The Social Security and driver license numbers of voters are kept confidential.

Many lawmakers pay close attention to the foundation's positions on public records exemptions. But in the case of voters' email addresses, they said they are more troubled that voters would be harassed by candidates and private companies if their email addresses were readily available.

"I think we do stand for open government," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the leader of the 44 House Democrats. "But we do have some concerns when it comes to the voting information. We've heard complaints that people don't want to hear from politicians on their personal email."

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, cast the lone no vote in the House. The Senate is poised to vote on the measure Friday.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

House approves bill to keep voters' email addresses private 04/25/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013 9:18pm]
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