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Project Vote / Voting for America, Inc. v. Long, No. 11-1809

Decided: June 15, 2012

The District Court held that Section 8(i)(1) applies to completed voter registration applications, and as such, defendants violated the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”) by refusing to disclose completed voter registration applications. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

Project Vote/Voting for America, Inc. (“Project Vote”) initiated this suit after it learned that students at a historically minority university had problems registering to vote in the November 2008 primary and general elections in Virginia. Fearing the registration applications were erroneously rejected by the Elisa Long, the Norfolk General Registrar, Project Vote made multiple requests to Long that the applications and related documents be made available for inspection and copying pursuant to NVRA Section 8(i)(1). Long refused these requests, and the Virginia State Board of Elections (“VSBE”) subsequently issued an informal opinion supporting Long’s denial of the requests, stating that Section 8(i)(1) did not encompass completed voter registration applications. Project Vote then filed suit.

Defendants, Long and the Secretary of the VSBE, moved to dismiss on the basis that Project Vote lacked standing under the NVRA and that Section 8(i)(1) does not mandate public access to completed voter registration applications. The District Court denied the defendants’ motions, and Project Vote moved for summary judgment. Defendants opposed the motion, asserting, in addition to their original arguments, that the District Court’s interpretation of Section 8(i)(1) was incompatible with two other statutes – the Help America Vote Act (“HAVA”) and the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (“MOVE”) Act. The District Court ruled in favor of Project Vote, but stayed its judgment pending this appeal.

The Appellate Court addressed the defendants’ first argument that the text of Section 8(i)(1) does not require public disclosure of completed voter registration applications – specifically, that it can be read as relating only to voter removal records. The Court found that the words of the statute are unambiguous, and clearly not limited to voter removal records, as completed voter registration applications obviously fall within the relevant language of Section 8(i)(1): “records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.” Furthermore, the Court found that the completed voter registration applications at issue do not fall within either of the two exceptions to Section 8(i)(1).

The Appellate Court then rejected the defendants’ argument that Section 8(i)(2) limits the records subject to public disclosure under Section 8(i)(1). While Section 8(i)(2) includes the term “shall include,” the Court found that it did not limit Section 8(i)(1) which clearly states that “all records” falling under that section must be publicly disclosed.

The Appellate Court thus held that Section 8(i)(1) is not limited to voter removal records and requires disclosure of all materials described in the section. As such, defendants are required to permit inspection of the completed voter registration applications.

The Court then moved on to address the defendants’ final argument – that the lower court’s interpretation of Section 8(i)(1) conflicts with HAVA and the MOVE Act. Noting that the requested registration applications clearly fall within the plain language of Section 8(i)(1), the Court determined that it need not consider the impact of HAVA and the MOVE Act on the language of Section 8(i)(1), as it need not look outside the language of the statute to construe it. While not necessary, the Court did take the statutes into consideration and found that both are consistent with the lower court’s interpretation of Section 8(i)(1).

Lastly, the Court stated that the privacy concerns asserted by the defendants did not necessitate reversal of the District Court decision. First, since the lower court expressly stated that social security numbers would be redacted from the completed voter registration application prior to their required disclosure for inspection and copying, the increased risk that comes with disclosure of this uniquely sensitive information was eliminated. Secondly, while the disclosure of other private information on the voter registration applications may inhibit voter registration in some instances, that possible drawback must be balanced against the numerous benefits derived from the disclosure requirement. Furthermore, the Court noted that even if it found that Section 8(i)(1) did not strike the proper balance between transparency and voter privacy, that policy question is best reserved for the legislature, not the courts.

In summary, the Appellate Court affirmed the District Court, holding that completed voter registration applications are subject to disclosure under Section 8(i)(1) of the NVRA since they are clearly “records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.”

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore