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. Circuit Court of Appeals found the General Registrar in Norfolk, Va., violated the National Voter Registration Act by refusing to release completed voter registration applications. The court ruled that once an applicant’s social security number is redacted from the document, it becomes public.

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

Project Vote was notified that students at Norfolk State University, a historically African-American school, reported problems when registering to vote in the November 2008 primary and general elections, according to the opinion.

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

Long, who is responsible for processing the applications, refused, saying she would not allow the inspection or copying of the requested materials.

The NVRA, a federal law, requires the release of “all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.”

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

But a federal judge disagreed, and the appeals court on Friday affirmed that the process of reviewing applications is a “program” and “activity” under the public disclosure provision, calling it vital to maintaining voter rolls.

“Without verification of an applicant’s citizenship, age, and other necessary information provided by the registration applications, state officials would be unable to determine whether that applicant meets the statutory requirements for inclusion in official voting lists,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

The court also noted the need for transparency in the preparation and maintenance of the voter rolls.

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

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

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

“This issue has never before been litigated, and with controversial voter purges taking place around the country, it has never been more important,” said Executive Director Michael Slater in a news release.

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

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

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

Long has the option to appeal to the full Fourth Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither department would comment on plans for further action.

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

By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer

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