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Politics / Issues

Another curb on open records: This one would shield voter information.

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson debates on the House floor on April 25, 2017.
Rep. Cyndi Stevenson debates on the House floor on April 25, 2017.

Republican state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson of St. Augustine has introduced a bill to make voter registration data like political party and day of birth confidential.

State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson of St. Augustine has filed a legislative bill to shield voter registration data from public view, one of several bills that would exempt more information from Florida's public records laws.

In a news release, Stevenson said the intent of the bill is to "protect our citizens from scams," which she says have been carried out with the use of voter information.

Sevenson's bill would make a voter's phone number, email, party affiliation and birthday confidential information. While the public would not be able to access the information, it would still be available to canvassing boards, political parties, political candidates, political committees and election officials.

Stevenson introduced a similar bill in 2019. It died in the Senate after grassroots organizations like the League of Women Voters mounted an opposition campaign, arguing that the legislation would prevent non-partisan nonprofits, media outlets and academic institutions from accessing the data, potentially in ways to help the public.

Stevenson's version for the 2022 session now includes an additional provision: Florida's secretary of state would have the discretion to grant voter registration access "for any purpose" to any individual.

The Florida First Amendment Foundation, which opposed the earlier version of the bill, has not taken a position on Stevenson's new legislation, but the foundation does have concerns about unintended consequences like shielding political candidates from public vetting.

"You couldn't see whether [party affiliation] changed over the years. And that is something some voters want to know," said Virginia Hamrick, First Amendment Foundation staff attorney. "Have they always been in this party or is this a new switch?"

She says the organization also is leery about granting the secretary of state sole authority to decide who can access the data.

"How are they granting permission? Is it to every nonprofit that wants to get voter information that does voter outreach and informs the public?" Hamrick said. "Are certain groups going to get that information and others not?"

"Think about the constitutional amendments on the ballot. This information will be available to candidates and political committees, but it wouldn't be available to organizations like the League of Women Voters or other nonprofits."

Stevenson's bill has the support of some elections officials. Craig Latimer, departing president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, thanked the representative for filing a bill that would address "the No. 1 complaint we hear from our voters."

"Misinformation or excessive texts and calls come from the data that a voter has on file with us on issues

completely unrelated to their right to vote," Latimer said. "It is an open opportunity for personal information to be abused.”

Stevenson's bill follows a trend in recent years of laws expanding what information is exempt from public access.

Other bills introduced this session would shield, among other things, cold case information in murders, the identity of individuals and groups involved in state executions, and residents who adopt dogs from shelters.

Democratic state Rep. Tracie Davis of Jacksonville is sponsoring a bill that would exempt the names of people who win lottery prizes of $250,000 or more. She said winners often are subjected to scams, harassment and "even a loss of life."

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Republican from Hialeah, is sponsoring a bill that would shield "key details" of murder investigations regardless of whether the investigations are active. Information would not become public until it is provided to a person who was arrested.

Keeping details of murder investigations secret would "protect the integrity of the investigation and those individuals who cooperate with law enforcement," the bill says.

As far as pet adoptions, Rep. Fred Hawkins, a St. Cloud Republican, says the public should not have access to the names of people who adopt animals from shelters or animal-control agencies operated by local government. The bill points to concerns about "stalking, harassment and intimidation" by previous owners.

In 2018, a constitutional amendment known as Marsy's Law was enacted to protect the identities of crime victims in Florida. Some police agencies have used the law to justify withholding all information about victims entirely, and police officers themselves have argued that Marsy's Law protects their identities in uses of force against the public.

The Florida Supreme Court announced this week that it would take up the question of whether Marsy's Law applies to police officers.

Hamrick, at the First Amendment Foundation, is concerned about growing exemptions to Florida's Sunshine laws.

"The number of exemptions leads to a less informed public and less oversight of the government," Hamrick said.

Copyright 2021 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

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