***Note: this bill has been substituted, this analysis may no longer be valid***
SB 36 – Voter Information Amendments from Senator Karen Mayne (Democrat – Kearns) has been on our radar for a few weeks now, but recent events have placed the bill at the center of a recent controversy.
A week ago, utvoters.com entered the public debate. The website, which is six months old, provides voter registration records for nearly every Utahn. Some have noted that prominent figures, such as Governor Gary Herbert, do not have their personal information and voting history listed on the site – accusing the governor of selling voter data while avoiding the consequences of having such data online. Others have complained that the information listed on the website are too personal and should not be displayed in such a public forum – citing recent high-profile personal data releases such as the 780,000 names lost in March 2012 after Medicaid information was leaked.
The creator of utvoters.com, Tom Alciere, a resident of Nashua, New Hampshire, fully admits that the use of the domain name is an attempt to make money. “I need to pay bills, so I just put up these websites,” he told Fox 13 News.
The cost to purchase the entire voter information dataset is $1,050. Traditionally, this has been done by political candidates, polling firms, academic institutions, and news sources to help them have a more complete understanding of the demographics of any particular election. The data included on utvoters.com include full names, registration date, party affiliation, home addresses, and voting history. Aside from registration date and voter history, the information listed is generally available to the public, but in various different locations.
Voter history records only if a person participated in a particular election, not who a particular person voted for – this information is not available, even to the Lieutenant Governor, whose office is in charge of the voter file.
In SB 36, Mayne is looking to restrict the purchasing of voter registration records to only “political, scholarly, journalistic, or governmental purposes” and would prohibit the use of the voter file for any commercial purposes. A violation of this clause is punishable by a class B misdemeanor – where a maximum punishment would be six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Mayne’s bill, though appearing to have the sincere desire to help protect people, poses many problems. If a polling firm, for example, uses information obtained from the voter file to contact registered voters, it could be argued that they are engaged in both a political and commercial endeavor (presuming the firm is being paid for the poll). Likewise if an article is published in a newspaper or online using information culled directly from the voter file, they too are presumably engaged in a commercial endeavor so long as an advertisement appears anywhere within the publication. The second, broader problem is one of censorship. If Mayne’s bill were to pass, the government would suddenly be thrust into a debate of what is or is not a political, academic, or media related purpose – with the most problematic being the media use. If a publication feels it is legitimate and the government does not, suddenly there is the real possibility that a First Amendment violation is taking place.
The state may want to, instead, pursue a policy that makes it easy for people to remove their name from the for-public-consumption voter file and inform voters of the new policy. All necessary information would remain with the Lieutenant Governor while the public consumption file may only include non-specific demographic information such as number of people registered in household and party affiliation of those in a household. This would better protect individuals while providing the public with useful data.
Alciere, for his part, appears to be reveling in the attention he is receiving, posting traffic history on the website and placing a notice that people can also search for “every U.S. abortion from 1974 to 2012” encouraging people to “find out if your wife, sister, daughter or fiancee is a baby-killer.” When clicking on the notice, a black screen with white text states that “You look like you’re having a heart attack! You actually fell for it, didn’t you?” Medical records, such as the history of a woman receiving an abortion, are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). A single HIPPA violation by a person who knows what they are doing is $10,000 per violation. If the person refuses to correct the disclosure, that fine increases to $50,000 per violation with a maximum penalty of $1.5 million.
There is an option to remove a name from utvoters.com, however the process requires an individual printing and mailing a document, along with a photocopy of their voter registration card, to Alciere in New Hampshire.
To contact Senator Mayne, click here or call 801-968-7756.
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Need for Legislation:
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Sound Legislation 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Clunker