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Should Voter E-mails Be Private? Florida House Says Yes

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[Image courtesy of redorbit]

As previously noted here, the Florida Legislature is currently considering legislation to make changes to the state's election process in response to the 2012 election. While some of those changes have sparked controversy, one bill regarding voters' e-mails recently received near-unanimous approval in the state House. The Tampa Bay Times has more:

Email addresses of voters will be secret under a bill the House passed and sent to the Senate Thursday.

The House voted 114-1 to create the public records exemption, despite the opposition of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government watchdog group backed by many of Florida's newspapers.

Lawmakers said they are concerned about protecting voters from being inundated by candidates and political committees that obtain their email addresses.

The idea of email restrictions stems from the desire of local election officials to allow voters to sign up for personalized sample ballots delivered to a voter's inbox, not their mailbox:

[T]he state Legislature wants ... voters to give their email addresses to county elections offices so they can get sample ballots online, rather than by mail, and study their choices electronically.

If enough voters opt in, counties could save a lot on printing and postage costs.

Elections supervisors like the idea. But they want the law changed so that voters' email addresses would remain confidential.

That request drew opposition from the state's influential First Amendment Foundation, which is supported by many of the state's newspapers, who argued that

the bill's original wording was so broad that it would shield email addresses of registered voters held by any government agency, not just those held by elections officials ...

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen called the bill "nonsense" and said the Legislature's statement of necessity, a legal requirement for any new public records exemption, was "speculative at best." That statement said that a public email address of a voter "could be misused and could result in voter fraud."

In a letter to legislative leaders opposing the bill, Petersen dismissed the argument by some lawmakers that people will be less likely to vote if their email addresses are open to the public.

Florida now has more than 12 million registered voters, "and it's doubtful that voters view Florida's public records laws as an obstacle to voting," Petersen wrote.

Notwithstanding the Foundation's objections, the bill received overwhelming support in the House, partly because of concerns about voter email and partly because so much other information is already available:

Under current law, most voters' addresses, dates of birth and party affiliations are public, as well as how often they have voted. The Social Security and driver license numbers of voters are kept confidential.

Many lawmakers pay close attention to the foundation's positions on public records exemptions. But in the case of voters' email addresses, they said they are more troubled that voters would be harassed by candidates and private companies if their email addresses were readily available.

"I think we do stand for open government," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the leader of the 44 House Democrats. "But we do have some concerns when it comes to the voting information. We've heard complaints that people don't want to hear from politicians on their personal email."

If the bill does become law, the next challenge will be to integrate e-mail into state and local election information systems and find a way for voters to update those addresses as they change over time. I also wouldn't be surprised if the Foundation or someone else were to bring suit against the law (if enacted) claiming that it stretches the notion of privacy too far.

Still, in a legislative session where discord over election bills has been so common, it's interesting to see such overwhelming support for any legislation.

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