Voter registration applications can be inspected, court says

By Alan Cooper, Virginia Lawyers Weekly – February 8, 2008

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled today in an unpublished order that applications to register to vote in Norfolk were available for inspection once Social Security numbers are redacted from the applications.

Andrew A. Rivera, a Northern Virginia attorney who is a member of the Advancement Project, an organization that monitors voter registration, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2005 for the completed application forms and for the correspondence Registrar Elisa Long sent to the applicants.

The request was in response to an article in The Virginian-Pilot reporting that Norfolk rejected 55 percent of applications, while other area registrars rejected less than 10 percent. Long denied the request and Rivera appealed.

Norfolk Circuit Judge Everett A. Martin Jr. ruled that Rivera could inspect but not copy the correspondence but denied access to the application forms because they contained Social Security numbers and state election law bars the disclosure of such numbers by local registrars and the State Board of Elections. Rivera said he would be happy with the applications if the numbers were redacted, but Martin refused any inspection.

The Supreme Court said in Rivera v. Long, Record No. 070274, “Obviously, if the Social Security numbers are redacted from the registration records, the documents will no longer contain a Social Security number. Consequently, they will no longer be exempt from inspection.”

The ruling is of limited precedential value, however, because the General Assembly adopted a bill last year introduced at Long’s request that will permit the applications to be kept secret.

Still, said L. Steven Emmert, who represented Rivera along with Kevin E. Martingayle, Rivera should get access to the 2005 applications.

“This will enable citizens to know why the Norfolk registrar rejected applications at 10 times the rate of everyone else,” Emmert said.