OLYMPIA — Washington’s Democrats didn’t campaign last year on rolling back the state’s Public Disclosure Act.
But with their new one-seat state Senate majority, Democratic lawmakers have swiftly and quietly pushed two bills to curb parts of Washington’s open-records laws.
Lawmakers call the measures necessary to protect state employees from harassment and identify theft, and to limit federal use of state voter data. Unions are supporting at least one of the measures.
In recent years, unions and the conservative Freedom Foundation have fought over the foundation’s campaign to reduce public-sector union membership. The organization has sought date-of-birth information in public records to help it locate and contact state employees.
Senate Bill 6079 would exempt the birth dates of state employees from the public-records law. The second bill, Senate Bill 6353, would expand automatic voter registration, but language added to the legislation would remove birth dates and months in Washington’s voter-registration files from public disclosure.
Both measures have passed the Senate and are now in the House.
SB 6079 is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday morning in the House Committee on State Government, Elections & Information Technology.
The provisions — one of which never got a public hearing in Olympia — have drawn condemnation from open-records advocates.
“It’s like burning down the whole building, from our perspective, because there is a paint chip,” said Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member and president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG).
Nixon, who previously served as a Republican state representative, said lawmakers are moving in only one direction when it comes to the state Open Records Act — creating new exemptions that close off records and seeking to impose higher costs on records requesters.
Nixon rejected bill supporters’ arguments about identity theft, saying there is no evidence thieves are able to steal identities with just a name and birth date, or that they’ve sought to do so via public-records requests.
Journalists and others use dates of birth to differentiate people with similar names and make accurate identifications. “How do you know the Toby Nixon charged with assault is the same as the City Council member from Kirkland?” he said.
Meanwhile, the bill stripping dates of birth from Washington’s voter-registration file caught county and state elections officials off-guard. Elections officials in two counties say they didn’t know the provision had been added to the bill until they were contacted by The Seattle Times.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the state’s top election official, criticized the provision, saying it would reduce trust and transparency in elections. And, “To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any ID theft from it as public record,” Wyman said.
WCOG and other open-records advocates will fight the bills in the House, Nixon said, but “if the parties are locked up along party lines, there is not a lot we can do about it.”
Swift Union Support
Democratic lawmakers say the state employee bill is in response to concerns over identity theft and fraud. Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, who sponsored the bill, attended a Council of State Governments conference last November focused on cybersecurity.
There, federal agents discussed the trafficking of personal information on the web, which Kuderer said she discussed further with an FBI agent. “And his recommendation was that we shouldn’t be offering up” information like birth dates “unless there was a really good reason for it,” she said.
Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, said the proposal has been around for years. But with growing pressures about data and technology, he said, “we just thought it was time to act.”
Hunt and Kuderer acknowledged the proposals drew swift support from labor unions, some of which have been locked in legal actions and political fights with the Freedom Foundation.
Public-sector unions are major contributors to Democrats in Washington. Since 2016, they’ve donated about $790,000 directly to Democratic candidates for state office, with an additional $835,000 going to state Democratic Party committees, according to data from the National Institute for Money in State Politics.
Those unions also delivered six-figure checks for ads in a special election in November that handed Democrats control of the state Senate.
In email blasts to its members, the Washington Federation of State Employees has urged support for the public-employees bill, warning in a January email about the Freedom Foundation’s ongoing efforts “to jeopardize your safety and security by getting its hands on your date of birth.”
The Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based organization, has been waging a campaign to reduce membership of public-sector unions by identifying union members and notifying them of their rights to decline paying union dues or fees.
“I don’t think anybody who is being honest about the topic could deny that the primary motivation for SB 6079 is to prevent the Freedom Foundation from communicating with public employees,” said Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the foundation.
Earlier this year, the bill’s language was slipped into unrelated legislation sponsored by the state Sunshine Committee, which reviews exemptions to Washington’s Public Disclosure Act. A representative of the Sunshine Committee complained about that move — and lawmakers removed the language.
Four days before a Senate vote on SB 6353, lawmakers added the provision exempting days and months of birth of registered voters from disclosure.
The bill’s purpose is to expand ways to automatically register people to vote while they are doing other business with the government, like getting an enhanced driver’s license or obtaining insurance through the state Health Benefit Exchange.
The date-of-birth provision came after the bill had gone through three public hearings — preventing any public input into the addition. Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, called that move “major sausage making” by lawmakers with power.
“They slip in significant changes with little debate when they can,” Miloscia said.
While he ultimately supported the underlying bill, Miloscia said he disagreed with the date-of-birth provision and introduced an unsuccessful amendment to remove it.
Language for the exemption came from an earlier bill sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, which never got a public hearing. Through a spokesman, Darneille declined to comment.
Both that spokesman and Hunt said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson requested the provision. Anderson’s office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday and Friday.
Asked about the bill’s moving swiftly and without a public hearing, Hunt said, “Things move quickly in the legislative process.”
Hunt, who sponsored the legislation, said some county auditors became concerned about having dates of birth publicly available after the Trump administration last year sought state voter rolls as part of its voter-fraud commission.
Legislators, however, made sure the bill would keep public voters’ year of birth, Hunt acknowledged, so campaigns can still use the information to target voters based on age.
Lawmakers originally made voter birth dates public after the 2004 gubernatorial election between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi, Wyman said.
Gregoire was ultimately declared the winner by 129 votes in a race that required three counts of ballots. An infamously close election, the race sparked a lawsuit and months of acrimony as each side contested ballots.
As people questioned the identity of some voters with similar names, “Our defense was, you have to trust us,” Wyman said. “The birth date is the thing you can use to tell people apart.”
Julie Wise, director of King County Elections, said changes in the elections system have reduced the need for public birth dates in the voter rolls. But King County Elections wasn’t consulted on the provision, learned about it just days before the Senate vote and doesn’t see it as a priority, Wise said.