Sample online ballots in Florida spur clash on privacy

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 18, 2013 

Voting, like everything else, is discovering the digital age.

No, online voting is not coming to Florida. The state that gave us six-hour waits at the polls obviously isn't ready for that.

What the state Legislature wants is for 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 has brought protests from the First Amendment Foundation, an open government group backed by many of Florida's newspapers. The League of Women Voters isn't sure voters' email addresses should be a secret, either.

But elections officials and legislators say that if voters' email addresses were public, they would be hounded by political parties wanting money and candidates seeking support, not to mention retailers and others. They say that would discourage voters from giving out their email addresses.

Legislation to keep the information private — SB 1260 and HB 249 — is moving ahead with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats.

The sponsors are Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, and Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, who said it would be wrong to make a voter's email address public information.

"It was just meant to get higher participation," Nelson said. "It's to give people more comfort that they won't be solicited."

First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen says the secrecy is not needed. In a letter of opposition, she noted that a finding of legislative necessity, required for all public records exemptions, says secrecy would prevent voter fraud, "yet there is no factual evidence to support this assertion."

"Furthermore," Petersen went on, "there are no signs that voters are shying away from the polls because their email addresses are subject to disclosure."

Deirdre Macnab of the League of Women Voters said email addresses could be lost and voters wouldn't get their sample ballots. She also said people change their email addresses a lot.

"We support ways to cut costs and reduce the use of paper, but this idea should be approached with caution to see if the amount of work justifies the end product," MacNab said.

County elections supervisors are not secretive people. But they are in the customer service business and their customers are voters.

Citrus County's Susan Gill says people, fearful of identity theft, complain when they learn that their date of birth is public information (as are voters' party affiliations and how often they vote).

"Sometimes," Gill said, "the Sunshine Law can give us a sunburn."

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