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Voter records would become private under a bill awaiting action Monday committee at the Utah Legislature, a seismic shift from current law.
Election laws allow members of the public to obtain, for the cost of a public records request, a voter's information including party affiliation, voting history, year of birth and address. HB348 would restrict who can access that information.
In what the bill's sponsor described as a way to protect vulnerable people, the bill would exempt from public disclosure most information about voters in Utah unless they opt to have it publicly available while registering.
"We're trying to prevent this from being sold on the private market," said Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake. "As well as (trying to protect) voter identification that could be used to target specific vulnerable groups."
Political parties and their candidates routinely use publicly available information to reach out to Utahns of all partisan stripes to encourage them to vote for them in elections. The news media also often requests the information to verify public officials' voting history. Edwards said the proposal wouldn't change the media's access to voter information.
The problem, according to Edwards, is that voters' information is available to anyone, including those who might want to "use this information in nefarious ways," she said, noting that domestic violence victims and military members are vulnerable.
Domestic violence victims can already request that their information be private, but Edwards said the process was onerous. Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, asked if it would make more sense to make it easier for certain groups to have their information exempt from disclosure.
"The even simpler thing … is to make all the records private," Edwards said.
Political parties would still be able to access voter records from their party, but Edwards and other experts weren't sure whether the bill as written would allow political parties to access unaffiliated voter records.
Some lawmakers indicated they were interested in maintaining access to the unaffiliated voter information the second largest group of Utah voters, behind registered Republicans.
"In my district, I think 55 percent of the voters are not affiliated with a party," said Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden. "It would be a narrow group of people I would be talking to and the rest would be unknown" if parties couldn't access unaffiliated voter records.
They also wanted to make sure independent candidates, such as 2016 presidential contender Evan McMullin, could access the voter rolls as well.
The committee opted to hold onto the bill for more work. Edwards said she expects the bill will return to the committee on Monday.