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Should voters’ personal data be kept secret? Lawmakers say yes

Officials seek to shield birth dates, home and email addresses <br>
Hillsllsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer says personal information on Florida voters is too accessible.
Hillsllsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer says personal information on Florida voters is too accessible.
Published Feb. 1, 2018
Updated Feb. 1, 2018

Citing Florida’s identity theft problem and privacy concerns, election experts in Florida want the Legislature to keep secret most personal information on millions of voters.

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer and his colleagues are lobbying lawmakers to enact a broad new public records exemption this session. He said prison inmates write to elections offices seeking home addresses of people for various reasons.

“We don’t get to know why they’re asking, and there aren’t protection for voters,” said Brevard Supervisor Lori Scott. “People are saying, ‘Take me off the rolls.’ You shouldn’t have to choose between protecting your privacy and exercising your right to vote.”

Scott cited cases of third-party groups paying for so-called shaming mailers that falsely accuse people of not being registered to vote, and threatening to tell their neighbors.

The information has been public for 20 years, including every voter’s address and date of birth and if they provided it, their phone number and email address. It’s on a statewide voter database that’s often used by news outlets for basic verification purposes.

With the rapidly growing popularity of voting by mail, millions of Floridians have provided their personal email addresses to elections officials, and they are all public.

But in Florida, a state known for strong public records laws, county election supervisors say that information should be secret.

They say the broad requests for voter information by President Trump’s now-disbanded commission raised public awareness about the easy access to personal information. A New Hampshire man sells ads on websites that reproduce states’ voter databases, including Florida’s.

“We get calls about this on a regular basis,” said Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Johns, who filed a bill to keep the voter information secret. She said its accessibility subjects private citizens to commercial solicitation and harassment. “Unacceptable,” she said.

Her proposal (HB 761) sailed through a House subcommittee this week on a bipartisan 10-0 vote. No one raised questions and no one debated it. No one testified against it, though the First Amendment Foundation is on record as opposing the exemption.

Those voting yes included Reps. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills; Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation; Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill; and Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City.

A similar effort failed in 2016. If the exemption passes, voter data would be available only to candidates, political parties, political committees and county canvassing boards.

It’s one of many examples of government by anecdote. Lawmakers rarely, if ever, cite a specific case of someone being harmed by the availability of public information. Instead, they generally cite complaint calls and the potential for public harm.

The bill faces hurdles because no senator has filed the same proposal. A Senate bill would limit the secrecy to pre-registration voter forms of 16- and 17-year-olds. But election supervisors have been seeking the exemption for several years and say they will keep working to get it passed, including messaging on social media (below).

After Trump’s commission demanded the Florida voter database, Latimer said, people phoned his office saying, “’Hey, don’t you give my information away.’ But we don’t have a right not to.”


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