In a state that prides itself on public records, the Florida Legislature is poised to embrace unneeded secrecy and undermine the public's ability to hold government accountable. A sweeping public records exemption for voters' email addresses is nearing a final vote, and lawmakers should not embrace such ill-conceived legislation that raises more concerns than it solves.
Lawmakers who support the bills, HB 249 and SB 1260, claim that their only goal is protecting voters' privacy as they set the stage for the next phase of election efficiencies. But the legislation is written so broadly that it would apply to all sorts of public records with email addresses attached. It would require all state and local agencies to keep secret any email address it has from any registered voter. In practical terms, it would be almost impossible to administer — not that agencies would not try to redact the email address and delay answering even the most routine public records requests. Is the Department of Health, for example, supposed to scour voter rolls every time it gets an email from someone who might be a registered voter? Most significantly, keeping email addresses secret would make it impossible to determine who is trying to influence government — be it a state lawmaker or regulator. That is unacceptable.
Elections supervisors, who back the plan, are hoping to one day satisfy their requirement to produce sample ballots by emailing them to voters who provide an email address. The argument goes that if voters know that their email addresses are public records (just as their address, date of birth and party affiliation already are public on voter rolls) they won't agree to participate, thereby undermining this government cost savings. There is no evidence that Floridians fear contacting state or local government because their email address would become a public record.
There are signs that the Senate might amend the bill to make clear it applies only to keeping secret email addresses involving voter registration. That would be better, but it's not good enough. The Florida Constitution requires lawmakers to provide compelling public reasons why an exemption to public records is warranted. In this case, they have completely failed that test. The House and Senate should not bring these bills to a vote. And if the legislation makes it to the governor's desk, Gov. Rick Scott should veto it.