Court: Voter registration applications must be made public

VIRGINIA — Voter registration applications are public documents, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The 4th U.S. CircuitCourt of Appeals found the General Registrar in Norfolk, Va., violated theNational Voter Registration Act by refusing to release completed voterregistration applications. The court ruled that once an applicant’s socialsecurity number is redacted from the document, it becomes public.

The opinion follows atwo-year legal battle between General Registrar Elisa Long and ProjectVote/Voting for America, Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to increasevoter registration among young, low-income and minority voters.

Project Vote wasnotified that students at Norfolk State University, a historicallyAfrican-American school, reported problems when registering to vote in theNovember 2008 primary and general elections, according to the opinion.

Project Vote, in an effortto ensure the students’ applications were not wrongfully rejected, requestedthat the registrar “make available for inspections and copying the completedvoter registration applications of any individual who timely submitted anapplication at any time from Jan. 1, 2008, through Oct. 31, 2008, who was notregistered to vote in time for the Nov. 4, 2008 general election.” In addition,the organization requested the reasons the applications were rejected.

Long, who isresponsible for processing the applications, refused, saying she would notallow the inspection or copying of the requested materials.

The NVRA, a federallaw, requires the release of “all records concerning the implementation ofprograms and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy andcurrency of official lists of eligible voters.”

After more attempts byProject Vote, the state attorney general issued a non-binding opinion thatcompleted voter registration applications are not covered by the law.

But a federal judgedisagreed, and the appeals court on Friday affirmed that the process ofreviewing applications is a “program” and “activity” under the publicdisclosure provision, calling it vital to maintaining voter rolls.

“Without verificationof an applicant’s citizenship, age, and other necessary information provided bythe registration applications, state officials would be unable to determinewhether that applicant meets the statutory requirements for inclusion inofficial voting lists,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for a unanimousthree-judge panel.

The court also notedthe need for transparency in the preparation and maintenance of the voterrolls.

The Reporters Committeefor Freedom of the Press, along with 16 other media organizations including theStudent Press Law Center, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in October. Thebrief urged the court to uphold the records’ release, touting examples ofprominent publications using voter registration data to identify errors in theelectoral process.

“Without suchoversight, eligible voters could be erroneously or fraudulently barred fromregistering to vote, while ineligible voters remain on voter registration lists,potentially diluting the effort of legitimate votes cast,” the brief states.

Though the office hasyet to turn over the redacted application information, Project Vote considersthe ruling a victory in their two-year struggle for transparency.

“This issue has neverbefore been litigated, and with controversial voter purges taking place aroundthe country, it has never been more important,” said Executive Director MichaelSlater in a news release.

Mark Caramanica,freedom of information director for RCFP, said the ruling is also a victory forjournalists.

“It’s a clearstatement by the court – the information is clearly required to be released,”Caramanica said. “This will ensure journalists can conduct oversight on theapplications that are properly regulated or improperly denied.”

Long declined tocomment Monday. Caroline Gibson, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said heroffice “has received the opinion, and we are disappointed in the results.”

Long has the option toappeal to the full Fourth Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Neitherdepartment would comment on plans for further action.

Unless overturned, theruling becomes binding precedent in the Fourth Circuit states of Virginia, WestVirginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Maryland.

By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer