DENVER–In a hurried hearing Wednesday cut short by the “mini bomb-cyclone” blizzard and Governor Polis’ declaration of a state of emergency, the Senate State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee voted along party-lines in passing a bill to automatically register people to vote when they interact with state DMV or Medicaid departments.
Senate Bill 19-235 would set up links with various state and federal databases so that whenever a Colorado resident gets or renews a driver’s license, the state would automatically register them to vote if they are not already registered, and update their residence address if changed.
The stated intent of the primary sponsors, Sen. Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge and Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, is to facilitate and improve voter registration, but concerns about security and privacy were expressed during the hearing.
The system requires the transfer of driver’s license data to the Secretary of State’s office for any issuance, renewal or correction. From there it is distributed to the county clerk of the person’s place of residence.
The bill also requires the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to transfer electronic records of people who apply for Medicaid to the Secretary of State.
A representative from that department said that it is not currently legal to use Medicaid records in this way, but that other states are trying to get federal approval to do so.
The bill specifies that Medicaid data will not be used unless and until the federal government has approved it.
The person’s county clerk reviews the information sent by the Secretary of State and sends out a card to the person telling them they have been registered to vote, giving them 20 days to decline registration or party affiliation by returning the opt-out card.
If the card is not returned the voter is automatically registered, and their personal information is entered into the public voter registration database.
A question not addressed in the bill or hearing is how a person automatically registered would be affiliated with a party.
During the hearing Sen. Danielson admitted that the person would have to return the card to decline registration and go to the county clerk’s office to un-register.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, voicing concerns with the opt-out nature of the bill, data security and privacy said, “Why would we force someone to return the card?”
Committee Chair Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, dismissed objections that the system could register illegal aliens who get driver’s licenses, saying that immigration databases will be checked so only those legally entitled to vote will be registered.
Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, questioned that claim, saying, “Immigration status from HHS cannot be used. I see this as dismantling security.”
Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, said the bill puts those with domestic abuse protection orders at risk.
“We have a huge obligation not to invade their privacy,” Marble said.
The risk is that someone who is trying to keep their home address secret with a protective order against an abuser might unknowingly have that address put into the public voter registration database that anyone can search.
People sometimes refuse to register to vote to maintain their privacy and security. While driver’s license records are confidential, voter registration records are not.
One of the reasons that the state legislature made driver’s license information confidential was the risk of invasions of privacy and stalking.
Those who have a legitimate need to keep their voter registration information confidential can go to their county clerk’s office, pay $5 and have their information restricted.
The proposed system makes no provision for checking the transferred data against protective orders, and makes a trip to the county clerk’s office a requirement if for some reason the person doesn’t opt out of the automatic registration, by which time it may be too late.
Because the bill says the card cannot be mail forwarded, someone who triggers the automatic registration but then changes address or doesn’t get the card in time because they don’t check a post office box often enough, will be automatically registered without their consent.
The bill now moves on to the Committee on Appropriations because of the financial burden it places on county clerks. The fiscal note estimates that the cost to taxpayers would be $495,690 for fiscal year 2018-19 to set up the system, and ongoing annual costs between $2,485 for small counties and $74,550 for large counties.