Illinois Illegally Denied Elections Group Access to Voter Records, Federal Court Rules

Illinois Illegally Denied Elections Group Access to Voter Records, Federal Court Rules
An election worker makes a record of a ballot pickup on Nov. 3, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

A federal court ruled that Illinois violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) when it refused to provide an election integrity group with access to the state’s voter roll.

“Election officials must allow citizens to see what they are doing,” said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), the successful plaintiff in the case.

Indianapolis-based PILF describes itself as “the nation’s only public interest law firm dedicated wholly to election integrity.” The nonprofit organization “exists to assist states and others to aid the cause of election integrity and fight against lawlessness in American elections.”

PILF regularly uses the Public Disclosure Provision of the NVRA, along with state and federal open records laws that require government records be made available to the public, the group stated in the legal complaint (pdf) filed July 27, 2020, in the Springfield office of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.

Using records and data compiled through these open records laws, PILF “analyzes the programs and activities of state and local election officials in order to determine whether lawful efforts are being made to keep voter rolls current and accurate,” the complaint states.

The NVRA provides that “Each State shall maintain for at least 2 years and shall make available for public inspection and, where available, photocopying at a reasonable cost, 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.”

The complaint cites Project Vote v. Long, a 2012 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in stating that the Public Disclosure Provision of the NVRA “embodies Congress’s conviction that Americans who are eligible under law to vote have every right to exercise their franchise, a right that must not be sacrificed to administrative chicanery, oversights, or inefficiencies.”

The ruling (pdf) in the case, Public Interest Legal Foundation v. Matthews, court file 20-cv-3190, came on March 8. The defendants are Bernadette Matthews, who was sued in her official capacity as executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, the board itself, and two other board officials.

District Judge Sue Myerscough, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, found that the defendants “acted in violation of the Public Disclosure Provision of the NVRA when Defendants refused to make available for viewing and photocopying the full statewide voter registration list.”

Myerscough ordered the elections board “to implement policies and procedures which make available to the public the statewide voter registration list, allowing for redaction of telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, street numbers of home addresses, birthdates, identifiable portions of email addresses, and other highly sensitive personal information.”

The judge also ordered the defendants to pay PILF “its attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses.”

Adams, a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a statement that he was pleased with the ruling.

“Federal law allows everyone to see what is going on in election offices. PILF has found dead and duplicate registrants and voters registered in multiple states,” he said.

“Voter rolls are public, and the court said so. This is the second ruling this week that the Foundation has won to gain access to voter rolls. Accurate voter rolls are essential to free and fair elections.”

The second ruling to which Adams was referring is a March 4 decision (pdf) by Judge George Z. Singal of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine. The case is PILF v. Bellows, court file 20-cv-61.

Singal, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, refused a request by Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, to dismiss PILF’s lawsuit seeking access to state voter information.

After several demands for the data, Bellows informed PILF in February 2020 that she lacked legal authority to release voter files to the group. PILF sued, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under the NVRA. In the course of the litigation, Maine enacted a new law limiting the use and dissemination of voter data.

But Singal found that PILF “plausibly allege[s] a violation of the NVRA” by Maine, and threw out the state’s motion to dismiss.

Adams expressed optimism about the eventual outcome of the Maine case.

“This case is about transparency and the public’s right to know about vulnerabilities in our elections,” Adams said. “The court adopted our interpretation of the National Voter Registration Act and strengthened our rights to ensure that voter rolls are accurately maintained. This ruling is a victory for election integrity.”

Bellows didn't respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment on the Maine case. In the Illinois ruling, state Attorney General Kwame Raoul, a Democrat, whose attorneys represent the state, didn't respond by press time to a request for comment.