Edward Achorn came to the Providence Journal 20 years ago. He soon joined the public clamor for constitutional separation of powers – the cornerstone of American government that the General Assembly had resisted since the 1840s. His cogent columns bolstered the movement. In 2004, 78.3 percent of state voters approved the bipartisan Separation of Powers Amendment.
But in recent months Mr. Achorn has publicly bullied Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea over access to voters’ personal data. In a series of slapshot attacks, he belittled her efforts to protect hundreds of thousands of state voters from identity theft. He accused her of substituting “her personal whims for the clear meaning of the law.” He insisted that she was exhibiting “disdain for the people’s right to get information about their government.”
She and others submitted responses, but he refused to print them unless they accepted his edits. He also failed to explain a significant court case between the Providence Journal and Secretary of State over the names, home addresses, and full birth dates of all Rhode Island voters.
At the heart of the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) is a “balancing test” that empowers a judge, not Mr. Achorn, to decide whether the release of otherwise confidential records “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Rhode Island’s balancing test rests on the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and numerous court decisions. In 1998, after years of struggle, advocates for open government persuaded a reluctant General Assembly to incorporate the balancing test in Rhode Island’s APRA. The law rightly protects “sensitive personally identifiable information” from disclosure.
Most of the APRA predates widespread use of the Internet, and parts of the law need updating to protect against identity theft. Computer criminals around the world now systematically mine public records for bits of data they can mesh with information from other sources. Once thieves assemble individual electronic profiles, they impersonate unsuspecting targets and loot their accounts.
Controversy erupted in the fall of 2018, when Journal reporter Paul Edward Parker tried to conduct a computerized check of the state’s voter lists. With concerns about duplicates and dead people on the voter rolls, Parker sought birth dates to distinguish between individuals with the same or similar names.
When Gorbea resisted releasing the full voter list in electronic form, the newspaper filed an APRA complaint. An attorney for the Secretary of State answered: “A mass, digitized, searchable database containing every voter’s full date of birth in conjunction with other personally-identifying information is not a public record because the release of that record poses an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy for the voters whose birth dates are disclosed.”
Last December, in a tightly reasoned 15-page opinion, Special Assistant Attorney General Sean Lyness found the Journal’s request overly broad. He noted that the newspaper had not shown why it needed “full dates of birth of all 790,000 Rhode Islanders” to cross-check duplicate names that constituted less than one per cent of the voting list.
To allow reporters to research duplicate names, Gorbea set up a stand-alone computer where anyone can view, sort, and analyze the entire voter list, complete with full dates of birth. This spring, Gorbea proposed legislation (H 5925) that would allow foolproof scrutiny of the voter lists without exposing voters to identity theft. Her bill would allow disclosure of every voter’s birth year.
Achorn rejected this as “a dubious bill that would make it harder for the public to check her work maintaining voter rolls.” He cheered Speaker Nicholas Mattiello for returning the bill to the Judiciary Committee.
As a long-time advocate for open government, I hope the Providence Journal will seek a constructive compromise that allows scrutiny of voter rolls without a wholesale dump of voters’ personal data. I also urge Mr. Achorn to open his editorial page to writers who disagree with his opinions. Readers deserve genuine debate on the pages of Rhode Island’s paper of record. Please, Mr. Achorn, play fair.
H. Philip West Jr. served 18 years as executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and 10 as vice president of ACCESS/RI, the open government advocacy coalition. He is the author of Secrets & Scandals: Reforming Rhode Island, 1986-2006.