Bill Would Restrict Access to Vital Records in Maine

The ToddHouse Twitter feed alerted me to an article on the Lewiston Sun Journal website.
Concerns about fraud and identity theft are prompting Maine lawmakers to consider a bill to restrict the release of residents' birth and marriage records.

The Health and Human Services Committee was told Wednesday that Maine is just one of 11 states that allow public inspection of birth records and provides certified copies to anyone who requests them. Maine marriage records are also open to the public.
The bill would make it much harder for genealogists to trace their families. The proposed changes would "protect" vital records from public inspection for 100 years:
After 100 years from the date of birth for birth certificates, after 100 years from the date of death for fetal death certificates and death certificates, after 100 years from the date of marriage for marriage certificates and after 100 years from the registration of domestic partnerships, any person may obtain informational copies of these vital records in accordance with the department's rules.
Town clerks would be allowed to publish basic details of deaths and marriages within their jurisdictions, but access to the full, original records would otherwise be limited to a person's "spouse, registered domestic partner, descendants, parents or guardians" or an authorized attorney. Want to see your bachelor great-uncle's 1927 death record? Sorry, you'll have to wait 17 years.

The first impulse of legislatures is always to restrict access, and once restricted access is rarely expanded. I doubt any evidence of widespread "fraud and identity theft" was presented at today's hearing, because identity thieves have far easier ways of finding your birth date than by cranking through microfilm at the state archives. Any bank that still uses "mother's maiden name" to protect its accounts deserves to be robbed, because there are a dozen different ways to obtain this information online and off.

I'm curious if there is any study proving a correlation between open records-access policies and identity theft. According to the FTC, despite being an "open record" state, in 2007 Maine ranked 45th in the nation in identity theft complants per 100,000 population. Despite being a "closed record" state, Arizona ranked first. Pennsylvania, despite having extremely restrictive policies, ranked 14th [Report (pdf)].

Restricting access to certified copies of records is sensible, but restricting access to even non-certified copies will discourage thousands of Mainers from investigating their family histories. Locking away marriage and death records for a century is especially ludicrous. New Hampshire keeps these records private for only 50 years; Vermont and Massachusetts have even fewer restrictions.

Maine has a wonderful policy of open access to vital records. It would be a shame to hide a substantial part of our state's history from public view. Access to certified copies of records should be restricted, but this bill is an overreaching solution to a problem that just doesn't exist.

Update (12 Apr. 2010): The bill has been passed, but with an important amendment.

Views: 316

Comment by cheire gordon young on March 3, 2010 at 7:50pm
What can we do to protest this there a say of the people of Maine? I think its terrible to take away our access to family records!
Comment by Chris Dunham on March 3, 2010 at 7:52pm
Not sure yet, but I'll try to post updates as this moves through the Legislature.
Comment by Elizabeth (Packard) Corson on March 4, 2010 at 4:42pm
This really bothers me and I have emailed about 25 of the Maine Represenatives and Senators. I will probably email the rest too. There is a list of them on the Maine Government website with links to email, so let's tell them how we feel.
Comment by Chris Dunham on March 4, 2010 at 4:59pm
Here are lists of Maine Representatives and Senators, with addresses and phone numbers. The bill is now before the Health and Human Services Committee, so the immediate focus should be on these legislators.
Comment by Chris Dunham on March 5, 2010 at 5:00am
The writer of this AP article consulted a "public records expert and advocate" who could not cite "a single case of identity theft in Maine or elsewhere involving birth or marriage records."
Comment by Ward on March 5, 2010 at 7:45am
I read the bill (HP1271, LD1781) it was presented (sponsored). by Representative Anne PERRY of Calais.
Comment by Chris Dunham on March 21, 2010 at 6:08pm
Proposed amendments to the bill are linked from this MGS blog post.
Comment by Chris Dunham on March 21, 2010 at 6:15pm
And some good arguments for keeping records open will be found linked from this post.
Comment by Carol Virginia Pelletier on May 28, 2010 at 10:39pm
This is really sad, as so many people are searching for their roots. It is also a great hobby and pass time for many people. It brings many people to different locations in the State of Maine, which is very good for the struggling economy, now many of the researchers will not travel to these different towns, only to be told that the records are closed and cannot find the information they are searching for their ancestors.
Comment by Chris Dunham on May 28, 2010 at 10:45pm
I agree, Carol, and am happy to report that the bill was amended to accommodate genealogists. Still not sure exactly what new access policies will be implemented, but we should find out in the next month or two.


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