SALT LAKE CITY — Time was, not too long ago, just about everything you did was public, and no one seemed to care.
When news reporters interviewed people on the street, they routinely asked for their names and addresses, both of which were then broadcast. Coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy provides a perfect example, only because recordings of it are so plentiful on the internet. Eyewitnesses to that tragic event gave their addresses over the air as if they were telling the temperature or time of day, apparently never pausing to think about what cranks, psychopaths or hucksters might do.
Fifty-seven years later, we no longer have phone books, and people are much more cautious about giving up information.
But now two state lawmakers, Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, and Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, think the state may have gone too far when it comes to allowing voter registrations to be made private. They are sponsoring a bill that would once again lift that lid, but with a twist. Only candidates and political parties would get access to it.
In this age of metadata and targeted advertising, this could be a tough sell.
Anderegg sponsored a successful bill last year that lets political candidates keep their home addresses private. Now, with only a few exceptions, he wants the politicians to have yours.
At its heart, this is a side road in the age-old struggle between freedom and security. The government collects information about you, but what it does with that information has spawned conspiracy theories and mistrust in many different ways.
Our concerns about privacy seem to come and go in waves. Not too long ago, the nation seemed to be up in arms about the National Security Agency collecting all our telephone conversations in an effort to catch the terrorist needle in the haystack of mind-numbing normality. Now, our collective attention spans have turned elsewhere.
To be clear, this bill doesn’t rise to that level, but it does raise some interesting questions. In the information age, information is power. Why do political parties want it?
The interesting thing is that this bill, SB83, wouldn’t provide anything that wasn’t public information, available to everyone, a year ago. Most of that information, in fact, still is public. Last year’s bill only allowed people the option to make their information private.
But since then, 14% of the state’s registered voters have done so, and the fear is this percentage will grow.
And that is creating problems for political parties. If they don’t know which voters have registered as party members, how can they reach out to them? If those voters show up at caucus meetings, can the party verify their affiliation?
This is “a step too far in the name of protection,” Anderegg told the Deseret News last month. The state chairmen of both major parties agree. Only the upstart United Utah Party has disagreed, saying if people want to be let alone, their wishes should be respected.
Of course, while parties and candidates may have legitimate worries about caucuses, they also can use voter information to strategically target people with ads or requests for donations, or to organize effective get-out-the-vote campaigns. Some critics also say this information promotes political echo chambers, whereas less information might require candidates to appeal to more of a mass audience.
At a meeting of the Government Operations Interim Committee last summer, Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, worried about a loss of public trust. “Voting is a very private act,” he said, adding most people likely think their registration information already is private.
But of course, it hasn’t been. Not until last year, and even then only when you request it to be so.
I’m not sure when the nation began to get so concerned about private information. My guess is it happened gradually over the past 50 years, fueled by a lack of trust in government and by scam artists who began using public records to make money or to commit other crimes.
But one thing seems sure. Once you let people put a lid on their personal information, it’s hard to pull it off again.