Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Tampa lawmaker Janet Cruz wants voters' birth dates kept private

Florida has some of the strongest public records laws in the country. Too strong, in the minds of some in Tallahassee.

A case in point is that names, addresses, party affiliations and birth dates of voters have been public information for decades.

Election supervisors, and the news media, use the information to verify someone's identity.

State Rep. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, doesn't think this is a good idea.

She has filed a bill, HB 481, to keep voters' birth dates confidential, and expressed concerns that voters' personal information could be used to commit identity theft, though she could not cite a case where it has happened.

"I just feel very strongly about it," Cruz said. "It's really a privacy issue. This is something to protect people from identity theft."

Cruz, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee, said she filed the bill with the support of county election supervisors, who have expressed similar concerns about potential misuse of birth date information. Cruz's bill would keep the voters' age public, just not their exact birth dates.

"In the wrong hands, that information could be used for things like identity theft," said the supervisors' legislative liaison, David Stafford, the supervisor of elections in Pensacola's Escambia County.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel said he shares concerns about the misuse of voters' personal information, but that birth dates are commonly used to verify voters' identities for absentee ballot requests and for their signatures on ballot initiative petitions.

"I think the public might be shocked how much of their information is out there," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "I think there's a valid discussion to be had here."

That discussion could have happened Monday. But it didn't.

The Senate Ethics & Elections Committee held an afternoon workshop to seek a consensus on proposed changes to the election laws to be taken up in the 2014 session that begins next month.

At the very end of that list was the proposal to shield voters' birth dates from the public. But it was the only proposed change that the panel's chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, did not bring up for discussion.

"You notice we didn't take that up. We just didn't get to it," Latvala said with a smile, leaving little doubt that he doesn't think much of the idea.

The First Amendment Foundation, which tracks all public records legislation, sent Cruz a letter, voicing its opposition to her bill. The foundation, whose members include the Tampa Bay Times and other newspapers, said a voter's birth date is a legal way to verify someone's identity and should be preserved.

The Legislature last year passed a bill keeping secret email addresses of voters as part of the voter registration process. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it and wrote in his veto message: "It is essential to keep these channels of communication open to the public."

Latvala emphasized Monday that any rewrite of the election laws will have to get bipartisan support, and that he won't accept party-line votes on legislation.

This is an election year with very high stakes, so any tinkering with the mechanics of voting is sure to get extra scrutiny — as it should.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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