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Government Surveillance

Privacy Is an Election Issue

Americans overwhelmingly want Congress to enact greater privacy protections for email and digital communications, and they are more likely to support candidates who back privacy reform.

Those are the findings of a recent poll that ran in six politically diverse states—Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia—as well as Los Angeles.

In every area surveyed, at least 84 percent of voters said it was time to update the law known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. ECPA was passed nearly 30 years ago and says the government can access email without a warrant.

The new poll shows that support for ECPA reform and a desire to end warrantless surveillance are consistent across the board among voters, regardless of gender, age, race, or party affiliation.

What’s more, over 60 percent of voters in all of the areas surveyed, and over 70 percent in most, said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports ECPA reform. With the primary season wrapping up and Congressional elections just around the corner, politicians should take note: Privacy is an election issue.

Cantor’s Defeat

One example of privacy’s potential role in elections can be found in the political earthquake that rocked DC and Virginia yesterday, in which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to Republican primary challenger Dave Brat.

Many are offering their own take on how and why Cantor lost, and there were certainly lots of variables at play. However, it is interesting to note, as The Hill’s Julian Hattem did, that Brat has taken a much different stance on government surveillance than Cantor.

Cantor opposed the Amash-Conyers amendment that was offered last summer to end NSA bulk collection of Americans’ personal data. The amendment, which CDT called a potential privacy sea change at the time because of the unprecedented bipartisan support it generated, was defeated by an extremely narrow margin.

Nearly a year later and Brat, the victor in the country’s biggest political upset in recent memory, is running on a strong pro-Fourth Amendment platform. Brat’s website calls for an end to government surveillance programs that violate the Fourth Amendment, which is emblematic of the strong civil libertarian streak running through the GOP that has led to significant new alliances with the left.

Pols Rally Behind the Fourth

The Fourth Amendment, which in the past has rarely evoked the same political passion as the First or Second Amendments, may be emerging as a major issue for both parties. From Senate champions like Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Udall (D-CO), and Rand Paul (R-KY) to Tea Party favorites like Justin Amash (R-MI) and more traditional liberals and conservatives like John Conyers (D-MI) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), both Democrats and Republicans agree something needs to be done to extend Fourth Amendment principles to the digital age.

Unfortunately, the House missed a golden opportunity last month when it passed NSA reform legislation that many in the tech and advocacy communities—including the Center for Democracy & Technology—viewed as watered down and insufficient. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it will hopefully be strengthened.

This leaves ECPA reform—which governs law enforcement agencies but not the NSA—as the last best chance for the House to pass a strong bill to show constituents it takes their privacy seriously. The Email Privacy Act (HR 1852), a bipartisan bill that would update ECPA to require a warrant to access emails, has 215 cosponsors. That’s three shy of an absolute majority in the House. It is highly likely the bill will reach 218 in the coming weeks, and when it does, House leadership should move swiftly to pass it.

With privacy emerging as an election issue for voters, and with the support of over half the House, there has never been a better or more urgent time to pass real privacy reform.