Editorial: Fighting to keep Florida the “Sunshine State”

Michael Gold
HISTORIC CITY NEWS
St Augustine, FL

Florida Statute 97.0585 provides that confidential voter details, like social security number, driver license number, and Florida identification number, are exempt from public disclosure under s. 119.07(1) and s. 24(a), Article I of the State Constitution.

On Monday afternoon, December 20th, Historic City News was informed by legislative aide Frank DiMarco, that Cyndi Stevenson, member of the Florida House of Representatives for District 17, has filed a new Bill that proposes to extend a veil of secrecy over non-confidential voter details contained in those public records.

I contacted Stevenson right away to remind her of a conversation we had in 2019 when she tried to enact a similar Bill. That Bill died in the Senate after grassroots organizations like the League of Women Voters mounted an opposition campaign. Stevenson’s bill follows a trend in recent years of laws expanding what information is exempt from public access.

The question that was unanswered then and remains unanswered today is simply, “If you intrude on the public’s right to access non-confidential public records, what public need is accomplished?”

Stevenson responded to me promptly saying, “House Bill 983 exempts voter registration information from public records to protect our citizens from scams.  It is important to protect this information, as it can and has been misused by those seeking to do harm.”

I’ve got to ask, “Where’s the beef?”  Not that I do not trust Cyndi to be honest with me, because she has been honest with me in the past.  Nonetheless, I want to review some of these “scams” where the police have determined that the crimes would have been avoided had it not been for public access to non-confidential details contained in voter registrations.

The details Stevenson is targeting include a telephone number, e-mail address, date of birth, and party affiliation of registered Florida voters.

Besides the individual whose records are being sought, House Bill 983 would limit access to requests from:

  • a canvassing board or an election official in their official capacity
  • a political party, party official, a candidate who has filed qualification papers, or a registered political committee for political purposes only
  • a person who receives permission to access the information from the Secretary of State’s office

The Florida First Amendment Foundation, representing members of the press, broadcasters, and multimedia news sources, including Historic City News, opposed the earlier version of the Stevenson Bill.  They continue to be leery about the version before the 2022 session, HB 983.

One issue is granting the Secretary of State the 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?” asked staff attorney Virginia Hamrick. “Are certain groups going to get that information and others not?”

The Foundation also expressed concerns about unintended consequences like shielding political candidates from public vetting.

“You couldn’t see whether a candidate’s party affiliation changed over the years, and that is something some voters want to know,” Hamrick pointed out. “Have they always been in this party or is this a new switch?”

In 2019, the League of Women Voters argued that the legislation would prevent non-partisan, nonprofits, media outlets, and academic institutions from accessing the data, potentially in ways to help the public.

Although I can agree that this information is sensitive, it is available commercially to the public through sources other than the Elections Division of the Secretary of State.  Those seeking to do harm could continue to identify telephone numbers published in phone books, e-mail addresses from targeted mailing lists, birthdays from payroll records or unregulated credit bureau headers, and political party affiliation on member lists from numerous affinity groups and clubs.

Those who have followed me over the past 22-years, know that I have been fighting to keep Florida the “Sunshine State” when it comes to open public records, open public meetings, and holding public figures accountable to the public.

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.

In my view, at least in this case, making another intrusive law would scarcely stem the tide of scams committed by criminals who have abundant alternative sources for the same or similar information.