Recently, I resigned my position as a member of the legislatively-created task force that reviews the hundreds of exemptions to the Public Records Act, the law that requires disclosure to the public of the records of any governmental entity.
While the law generally requires disclosure upon request, there are many exemptions for specific records, most of which protect the privacy of individuals who may have some dealings with the governmental body. The obvious ones are medical records of Medicaid recipients, and the psychological records of those who have been involuntarily treated at state mental hospitals. Some exemptions are unnecessary or duplicative, and some years ago the Legislature established this committee - dubbed the Sunshine Committee, following the notion that transparency in government is like sunshine that disinfects - to recommend the repeal or modification of those exemptions that no longer serve a real function in protecting privacy. The trick is to balance two competing needs: on one hand, that of the general public for knowledge of government’s inner workings, for transparency, and on the other the need of every member of the public for assurance that any dealing with some governmental body will not result in public distribution of private matters.
Over its three or four years of existence, members of the press—proponents of transparency—have come to dominate the Committee. This made our debates more heated as time went on, as I believe the original mission of balanced review was being abandoned in favor of a tendency to disclose everything. But I kept my cool until the Committee voted 8 to 1 to place on its agenda a suggestion from a right-wing corporate advocacy group, the Freedom Foundation, that will, if it is acted upon, make the Committee complicit in a campaign to suppress many citizens’ right to vote. The Freedom Foundation has a long and sordid history of joining in campaigns funded by the Koch brothers on the national level, the modus operandi of which is to create public fear and anger at a supposed effort by large numbers of non-citizen immigrants to vote in American elections, which is hijacking the votes of true Americans. The purpose of this is to arouse public fear and anger, and to challenge that into support for legislative efforts to require photo-identification for voters.
In actual fact, the incidence of non-citizen voting is extremely small, too small in the larger picture to elicit much fear and anger. It is already a violation of federal law and the law of virtually all states, as it should be, and it is already prosecuted where found. The number of prosecutions, on the national level is something like 10 per year, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. (As elected prosecutors take up a more active stance, this number will no doubt increase, and that is perfectly acceptable, given that voting is for citizens.) Rational members of the public would look at these small numbers and shrug, thinking that Prosecutors’ time and efforts should be directed more productively at say, identity theft, or violent crimes, or sex-crimes.
But the Freedom Foundation’s ulterior purpose is blatantly partisan: to suppress the votes of likely Democratic voters, namely three classes of people who, though US citizens, are less likely for various reasons to have a drivers license or other photo-identification. These are the elderly, of whom many no longer drive; the very young, particularly urban, voters who have no need to drive; and racial minorities, particularly immigrants. By running campaigns in many states, especially “swing” states where narrow elections are expected, to pass laws that would keep these three classes of citizens from the polls, the Koch brothers and their network of right-wing organizations are determined to throw national and state elections to the Republicans, and to foster a helpful campaign against immigrants generally. In order to support such legislative efforts, they need to create and magnify “facts” that can be used to rouse fear, fear at a level that is irrational in comparison to the very slight threat of the occasional illegal voter, and to play upon that fear in the time-honored way of the Far Right. Hence the Foundation’s proposal to make available to the public the private answers of those who respond to a summons for jury-duty, but seek to be relieved of duty because they are non-citizens. Inevitably, some very few will be found who were on the jury-rolls not because of their driver license but because they had illegally registered to vote. It happens. The point is to find a way to turn it into a scandal sufficient to pass photo-identification laws, and to scare away from the polls those three groups of citizens who are likely Democrats but are without the requisite photo identification. This, I am sorry to say, is the daily business of the Freedom Foundation.
But it should not be the daily business of any state-created task force. The members of the Committee who accepted this proposal and placed it on their future agenda were, at the very least, naïve about the Foundation’s history of voter-suppression campaigns and its purpose in making this request. I do not want to believe that they support it explicitly. But to say that whatever marginal good might come of the questionnaires’ disclosure is worth an Arizona-style campaign of bigotry is, at the very least, naïve.
You can read my entire letter by clicking here.