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SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this year, Sen. Jake Anderegg got a bill through the Utah Legislature that lets candidates for public office keep their home addresses private. Now, he’s taken on the task of rolling back privacy protections on Utah voter registration data that he once supported.
“I voted for the last law because I want to protect the information. But I think we went a step too far in the name of protection,” the Lehi Republican said of the 2018 law allowing Utahns to opt to keep their voter registration records private.
Anderegg, a member of the Utah GOP’s governing State Central Committee, said he was approached by party officials to re-examine the voter privacy law because the party is no longer able to know who all of its members are — a concern shared by Utah Democrats.
Besides political parties, Anderegg said other groups, including candidates, backers of citizens initiatives, news media and pollsters also have an interest in accessing voter registration data. He said his proposal is still “a work in progress,” but could recommend providing different information to different groups.
Whatever he comes up with, Anderegg said, will still protect the information of those in what he termed “sensitive situations,” such as domestic violence victims or law enforcement and military personnel. The 2018 law was intended to help those Utahns keep their information from being publicly available.
He said that protection would extend to lawmakers’ addresses as well.
“I have no intentions whatsoever of taking a step backward,” Anderegg told members of the Government Operations Interim Committee at their Sept. 18 meeting, asking that they back his still-to-come proposal in advance of the 2020 Utah Legislature.
Little enthusiasm for change
But there didn’t appear to be much enthusiasm among the members for making changes in voter privacy.
“I’m kind of worried that we should err in the voter privacy versus what we need as candidates or what we need as parties,” Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said.
Republicans on the committee also weighed in with their concerns after Anderegg, joined by Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown and Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant, warned the law has already resulted in 1 of every 8 Utah voters choosing to shield their registration data.
“Voting is a very private act,” Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said, and most people think their registration information is also private. He said that “weighs so heavily, it’s hard in the balance to think of what we could do to do away with that, or chip away at that. So that makes me nervous.”
Seegmiller said he “really supported” Anderegg’s 2019 bill that permits candidates to keep their home addresses from being made public for safety reason. He blamed his home address being made public on his own house being broken into twice.
Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, said he respects that some of the people living in his Utah County district “may not want me to know who they are or where they live,” since candidates and elected officials also use registration information to contact constituents and target voters.
But he also tied the issue of political parties being unable to access information on some voters to the larger question of why the state operates primary elections, key to the recently ended battle between the state and the Utah GOP over a controversial law giving candidates an alternative path to the primary ballot.
Roberts said the privacy option, in effect, allows voters to say, “I want to be a Republican but I don’t want the Republicans to know I’m a Republican.” That makes it impossible for the GOP to verify a voter is eligible to participate in party caucuses and other activities that are only for Republicans.
“Voting in primaries may not necessarily be as public as a process since primaries are for the parties, to give parties a nominee,” he said, suggesting the registration form could spell out that by affiliating with a political party, the voter is allowing that party to be notified.
“Otherwise, we ought to just get rid of the state operating primaries. Which is something I’d advocate,” Roberts said, calling the state’s control of voter lists and primary elections — including the Republican Party’s that is closed to nonmembers — a “weird dynamic.”
Brown seemed to agree.
“The heart of the issue here is that it would be one thing if the affiliation was done with the party and we had the information — or with the government and then the government gave us the information. But we have the worst of all worlds now,” the Utah GOP chairman said. “We have the government doing it and not giving us the information.”
He said Utah’s law has attracted the attention of the Republican National Committee.
“It is a balance. But just so that you’re aware, as a state, we have gone further in terms of the balance than any state in the country on this issue,” Brown said, in trying to square privacy rights with “the inherent public rights of knowing who’s voting. What we’ve done is weighed so heavily on the privacy rights.”
So much so that he said the Republican National Committee contacted him and asked, “‘Did Utah really do that?’ This is deeply problematic.”
“I think it was well-intentioned and it takes into consideration a lot of those privacy concerns. But at the same time, to not know who the voters are ... we’re going to have a lot of people who simply won’t be able to participate,” Brown said. “You’ve got to have some information and right now, we’re trending toward no information.”
Merchant told the committee he believes “this is an inadvertent situation and the Legislature just needs to make a few small tweaks in order to make things function a little bit better for not just the political parties but the candidates we represent.”
The box on a voter registration form that has to be checked to keep the information private doesn’t make it clear political parties won’t be privy to who’s signed up, the Utah Democratic Party leader said, and may become a default for new voters.
“I think I speak for all of us when I say that 12% this year is just going to increase over the next several years. And as we get to 30, 40, 50% of the population that’s opting out of providing us data that we need, it’s simply going to make it more and more difficult for us” to get out the vote, Merchant said.
Not all onboard
Not all of Utah’s political parties are on board with easing the privacy option.
The 2-year-old United Utah Party issued a news release the day after the committee met, opposing any efforts to change the law.
“As a political party, we believe the privacy of voters should take precedence over partisan interests,” United Utah Party Chairman Richard Davis said. He disagreed that voter information is necessary for political parties to mobilize the vote.
“Voters who want to keep their information private are saying they don’t want to be contacted,” he said. “We need to respect that decision.”