Visiting Republican National Committee officials could not believe it: One of every eight Utah voters now uses a new law to prevent public release of voter registration data.

“Their jaws dropped,” said Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah Republican Party. “They said, ‘Are you serious? You can literally elect to have your data private? Well, at least you must know their names and whether they’re Republican, right?’”

No. In fact, when those who opt for such privacy show up and try to vote at party caucuses, the GOP has no way to verify if they are registered Republicans as required by party rules, Brown said. So, they either must reregister or skip participating.

“The RNC officials said they have never seen a state do what Utah has done,” Brown said. “They were mildly horrified” about how hard that makes it for parties and candidates to find and contact voters. It also may hinder hunting for voter fraud, and damage polling accuracy if officials don’t even know who one of eight voters is, let alone his or her demographics.

So, Brown said his party will push to dilute that 2018 law. So will the Utah Democratic Party.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he is trying to figure how to do that and still allow privacy for those who truly need it, such as celebrities or people who have court orders against stalkers or abusers.

But privacy advocates want to keep the law as it is or go even further to make all voter data information private unless voters give specific permission to release it.

As of July 31, the office of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox reports that 206,832 voters out of 1.67 million in Utah — or 12.4% — have opted to make their voter registration private since last year. So, their names, birthdates, addresses, phone numbers, party affiliation and when or if they voted are not released in public databases sold by the state.

Privacy concerns

Legislative fights over many years led to the 2018 passage of two laws to allow that voter opt-out, SB74 and HB218. Former Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, and activist Ron Mortensen were the leading proponents of that move.

Mortensen, a former foreign service officer who has been offered a controversial nomination by President Donald Trump for a State Department post to oversee refugee and migration issues, helped sway lawmakers by telling horror stories about how voter records — which some websites bought and listed — could help stalkers and abusers to find victims.

For example, “A young woman at the Capitol asked me what I was working on. When I told her about the sale of the voter list and its posting to the internet, she inquired if her record was included,” Mortensen wrote in an email.

“We went to the site and pulled up her information. She literally turned white and, on the verge of tears, told me that she had to immediately find a new place to live.” An abuser she testified against was about to be released from prison, and such websites could allow him to find her.

(File courtesy photo) Activist Ron Mortensen helped pass a law that allows Utah voters to make their voter registration data private.

Mortensen also showed lawmakers that their own private information was usually easily accessible online. And he told them about how he felt forced to withdraw his own voting registration and skip voting to avoid disclosing to potential enemies where he lives.

“When I was in Iraq, Da’esh (ISIS/ISIL) called on its affiliates to attack the U.S.-based families of American military personnel who were in Iraq. A military colleague said that he didn’t know how they could find his family,” Mortensen wrote. He showed that with a few clicks, it was easily available because of voter records some sites bought and posted online.

Utah law requires the state to sell its voter database to anyone who pays $1,050 — and some have posted it online.

Documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune showed that during 2018 and 2019, the Utah database was sold 63 times to political parties, candidates, ballot initiative groups, pollsters, marketing companies, advertising firms, medical and academic researchers and several individuals for whom no information was available besides their name and address.

Because of earlier laws, full birthdates in the public list are available only for political purposes, and to medical and news media groups to verify the identity of individuals. Applicants must provide assurances that they will use birthdates only for such purposes to obtain them.

Consequences

Some groups were caught off guard by how many people are opting to make their records private, and said it especially hurts politicians, pollsters and any nongovernment watchdog looking for voter fraud, such as people voting in multiple places or dead people casting ballots.

“It is very problematic for the Utah Republican Party because it makes it difficult for us to know who the party members are,” Brown said. He added it will only get worse. “My guess is that one-out-of-eight number is only going to go up. Over time it will be one of seven, or one of six.”

(Photo courtesy of Derek Brown) Former state lawmaker Derek Brown is one of four candidates to lead the Utah Republican Party.

Jeff Merchant, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said with so many people opting out, “it’s forced us to rely on older data” to reach many, and “it’s forced us to rely on data that may not be as accurate. ... So we may be not reaching many of our voters at all, or we’re getting in touch with the wrong person.”

Scott Riding, managing partner of Y2 Analytics, a Utah polling firm, said, “I suspect that younger people, new move-ins or people who are interacting with the driver’s license bureau more frequently [all of whom update voting records more often] are opting out at higher rates. When you have that kind of systematic bias, it can create bias in the list that hurts poll accuracy.

So his firm also relies on old data for demographics about all Utah voters. That may allow, for example, his firm to do extra polling of young people if needed to reflect what they think are the proper demographics.

“The longer we go, the less our historical knowledge about what the demographics [of all registered voters] used to be like will be accurate — and Utah is growing at an incredible rate,” he said.

While an alternative is to ask in polls if people are registered and intend to vote, Riding said such questions are notoriously inaccurate and affect results. “It’s because there’s a social effect. People don’t want to say, ‘No, I’m not registered to vote.’”

Michael McDonald is a University of Florida political science professor who bought the Utah voter database for a national study on voter turnout by age. He has many concerns about it missing one of every eight voters.

“If certain people are not represented on these rolls, then they don’t get called. We don’t learn about their opinions and then biases enter into the system,” he said. Because of such concerns, he said the Florida Legislature blocked similar bills there — and he’s unaware of any state that has gone to the extreme of Utah.

He said several states allow people such as police or victims of domestic violence to have their information removed from public lists — but they must apply for it, and it is not as easy as merely checking a box like in Utah.

“As a researcher, I also do watchdog stuff, too. We’ve been using techniques to identify where voters are assigned to the wrong district” and clean that up, McDonald said. Also, he noted Utah-type laws probably would have prevented Pulitzer Prize-winning work by the Miami Herald that overturned a mayoral election because of voter fraud through use and comparison of voter lists.

Dump the law?

As someone who studies politics, McDonald predicted, “I would expect that this law isn’t going to last because the parties and incumbents are going to need the data for their own elections.”

Brown, head of the Utah Republicans, and Merchant, Democratic leader, both said they will soon push to scale back the current law but hope to safeguard privacy for those who truly need it.

“We went a little too far with the last statute, and I’m trying to figure out how to balance it and bring it back a little bit,” said Sen. Anderegg. “I don’t know that there’s a perfect solution.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Republican Sen. Jake Anderegg.

He said he is looking at what some other states do, including allowing people to apply to have their names removed from public voting lists if they have restraining orders against someone or have jobs that could make them targets, such as police or public officials.

“We really need to start collaborating on what the solution might be,” he said.

But Mortensen said he would fight any change in the current law — unless it makes the law even tougher, automatically making all voter information private.

With the current law, “people are no longer denied the right to vote if they don’t agree to make their personal identifying information public, as was the case in the past. This form of voter suppression has ended,” he said.

Mortensen said the popularity of the law so far suggests voters want their data to be kept private — and want those opt-out procedures to be easy. “Most Utahns do not want their information posted to the internet, but they can’t file a police report or get a protective order to prevent that.”