Judge Rejects Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss in Project Vote v. Long
On October 29, Judge Rebecca Smith of the Eastern District of Virginia rejected the defendants’ motion to dismiss in Project Vote v. Long, allowing Project Vote to continue its efforts to access voter registration records that may have been improperly denied by the Norfolk registrar.
Project Vote v. Long began when, after receiving reports from their local community partners regarding large numbers of rejected voter registration applications (particularly from students at the historically African-American Norfolk State University),Project Vote sought to review Norfolk’s rejected registration applications to ascertain if qualified persons were unlawfully kept off the voting rolls. Elisa Long, the general registrar of Norfolk, refused to allow Project Vote access to the records and filed a motion to dismiss the case. Long cited a Virginia state law that prohibited disclosure of voter registration records. Project Vote argued that the Public Disclosure Provision of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires that states allow rejected voter registration applications to be inspected by the public, and that the NVRA, being a federal law, preempts the Virginia state law.
In her opinion, Judge Smith agreed with Project Vote that the NVRA requires the disclosure of rejected voter registration applications for inspection by the public.
Judge Smith outright rejected the defendants’ contention that the NVRA’s Public Disclosure Provision does not require disclosure of the actual voter registration applications, only the disclosure of “programs and activities which facilitate the proper removal already-registered voters from the voter rolls.” According to Judge Smith, this interpretation of the NVRA “contradict(ed) the statute’s plain meaning” and was unsupported by any language in the statute.
The NVRA requires the disclosure of “records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters” 42. U.S.C. 1973gg-6(i)(1). The defendants’ argument that rejected voter registration applications do not concern the “accuracy and currency” of the official lists of eligible voters was found to be untenable by Judge Smith. The judge pointed out the a voter registration application is the very “means by which an individual provides the information necessary for the Commonwealth to determine his eligibility to vote,” that voter registration applications are “relevant to carrying out voter registration procedures,” and therefore voter registration applications must be disclosed under the NVRA.
Finally, Judge Smith concludes that the NVRA was passed with the intention of “increasing voter registration and ensuring that the right to vote is not disrupted by illegal and improper impediments to registering to vote or to casting a vote.” Ensuring that such illegal and improper impediments are eliminated is necessary to the proper implementation of the NVRA. The public disclosure of voter registration applications was determined by Congress to be a necessary step in the removal of those impediments.
Project Vote plans to continue its efforts to access Norfolk voter registration records in accordance with this opinion.
For more background on the case, and a copy of Project Vote’s original complaint, follow this link.