Transparency advocates rebuke open records rollbacks in Washington state

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Transparency advocates are condemning two bills moving through the Washington state legislature that would revise the state’s open-records laws and clip certain items from public view.

The bills being advanced by Democrats — Senate Bill 6079 and Senate Bill 6353 — have each passed through the Senate, thanks to a one-seat Democratic majority, and are now being considered by the House. Both bills propose removing certain pieces of data from the public record in the name of privacy, though some detractors say there are ulterior motives at work, according to a report published Tuesday by The Seattle Times.

Senate Bill 6079 would exempt the birth dates of state employees from being released under the state’s public records laws. Sponsors of the bill say the measure is to protect state employees from harassment and identity theft, but the Freedom Foundation, a conservative organization based in Olympia, says the bill is designed to help unions retain membership.

The Freedom Foundation has been waging a campaign against labor unions by identifying union members through the examination of public records and notifying them of their rights to decline paying union dues or fees. This bill would protect the information the group needs to continue pursuing its campaign.

Political disputes aside, the Sunlight Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for open government, says it also opposes removing information like the birth dates of public officials from the public record and encouraged the state to invoke exemption rules, rather than reform its laws.

“While we’re sympathetic to personal identifiable information of the public and public sector employees needs to be protected to minimize potential harm, it’s also clear that this information is necessary for many kinds of watchdogging and public oversight,” John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, told StateScoop in an email.

The other bill, Senate Bill 6353, would expand automatic voter registration but also remove birth dates and months from the state’s public voter registration files.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Democrat who sponsored the voter data bill, said she met with an FBI agent who told her the state shouldn’t be offering up information like birth dates unless it absolutely needs to, but the bill is being condemned by local transparency advocates who say the release of such information imposes no additional threat of identity theft.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman criticized the voter data provision, saying it would reduce trust and transparency in elections as birthdates are commonly used as a way to differentiate between voters who have the same name.

The Seattle Times reports King County Elections wasn’t consulted on the provision and does not view it as a priority.

The Sunlight Foundation says weighing transparency against the potential harm of making certain pieces of information public is a process that should involve “careful, open deliberation, listening to the needs of public advocates, considering the example of other states, and evaluating past experiences of demonstrated risks and benefits of this category of disclosure.”

“The voices of open government advocates and investigative journalists make clear that exempting this information from state disclosure laws entirely would run against the spirit of transparent and accountable government lawmakers purport to stand for in Olympia,” Wonderlich said.

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Careers & Elected Officials, election data, elections, King County, Legislation, Legislator, Open Government, Seattle, State & Local News, States, transparency, Washington
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