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Legislators moved Wednesday to allow Utahns to choose to keep their voter registration records completely private and unavailable to even political parties, scholarly researchers and journalists.
The Utah Media Coalition of newspapers and broadcasters opposed it, calling it an overreaction to stories about how the website UTvoters.com put detailed personal information online after buying the voter registration database for $1,050 from the lieutenant governor's office.
But the House Government Operations Committee approved HB302 to make that change on a 7-1 vote and sent it to the full House.
The bill by Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, originally would have banned releasing just the birthdate of voters from records, and list an age instead. But Perry combined it with a bill by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake. It now allows voters to choose to make all their voting registration records private, and removes the birthdate and age from any records that remain public.
"You shouldn't have to give up your right to privacy and protection of sensitive confidential personal information because you want to exercise your constitutional right to vote," Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said in support of the bill. He said its provisions could allow him to prosecute anyone posting a voter list that includes data that some people have decided to declare as private.
A victim of domestic violence, testifying using the pseudonym of "Crystal," said she was horrified to see data online with her address, phone number and birthdate.
"I feel the state of Utah has no shame. It will sell personal information about its citizens," she said. "Domestic violence victims have high needs for privacy. We are already the target of an abuser and often need to keep our private data away from those abusers."
Frank Pignanelli, a lobbyist for the Utah Media Coalition, said the bill is an overreaction to threats that are more hypothetical than real, and said most of the personal information in voter lists is already online from other sources.
He said most voters would likely choose to check boxes to keep their information private. That could hurt the ability of journalists and activist groups to search whatever is public for voter fraud, such as dead people voting or people voting in more than one location.
He suggested other ways to combat the problem, including limiting public access only to groups such as journalists and researchers and imposing stiff penalties for wholesale publication of voter lists online. Sen, Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, is sponsoring a separate bill that allows such exceptions.
Edwards also acknowledged the bill would make it more difficult for political parties and candidates to identify and contact voters, and said the major political parties do not support it. "But there are other ways to identify voters," she said, including lists of who attends political caucuses.