Voter registration applications are public records under federal law that cannot be withheld from release simply because of an arbitrary promise of secrecy by state officials, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed today.
Joined by 16 media organizations, the Reporters Committee explained to the U.S. Court of Appeals (4th Cir.) in Richmond that reporters frequently use voter records to investigate possible voter fraud and other electoral improprieties and argued that reporting on such issues contributes to effective public oversight of the election process. “Access to voter-related records, such as registration applications and voter rolls, has proven critical in enabling journalists to monitor the accuracy of the information state officials use to determine who will be allowed to vote,” the media groups argued.
The case of Project Vote v. Long, et. al. involves an effort by Project Vote – a nonprofit organization focused on voting by youth, minorities and other marginalized groups – to access the rejected voter registration applications of students at an historically black college in Norfolk, Va. The group also is seeking access to similar records in the future.
Although Project Vote was concerned that the students’ applications were improperly rejected, its request for the records was denied by state officials on the grounds that the National Voter Registration Act does not compel disclosure of the information sought by Project Vote and, further, some of the voter registration applications contain private information about felony convictions and declarations of mental incapacity. Further, state officials argued that it promised applicants the information would remain private.
“For a government agency to simply declare that records full of public information are suddenly private is absurd,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “Not only does the National Voter Registration Act compel states to make voter information available, there is nothing in the Virginia application, outside of the full Social Security number, that isn’t a matter of public record already.”
About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.