|Project Vote v. Long|
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 and its voting partner, Advancement Project, 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, and Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the State Board of Elections denied Project Vote and Advancement Project the right to review the records. Due to this failure, both groups—along with pro bono attorneys from Ropes & Gray LLP—filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia.
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) has a public disclosure provision mandating states to adhere to certain requirements. In particular, the provision requires that records relating to the implementation of voter registration programs and activities be made available to the public for inspection and photocopying upon request. Virginia law, by contrast, prohibits many voter registration records—including rejected voter registration applications—from being disclosed.
Project Vote and its partner notified the Norfolk registrar and the State Board of Elections in 2009 about the conflict between Virginia and federal law and urged them to follow federal requirements, because when there is a contradiction between state and federal statues, the prevailing rule of law is the federal statue. However, election officials indicated that in their estimation, no conflict existed and they believed that the Norfolk officials were acting properly in accordance with state law.
On October 29, 2010, 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.
In July 2011, the Court granted Project Vote's Motion for Summary Judgment and ordered the Norfolk County Registrar "to permit access to any requesting party for copy and/or inspection of voter registration applications and related records," in compliance with public disclosure requirements under the the National Voter Registration Act.
Judge Smith denied Project Vote's request for access to applications completed before July 20, 2011 due to privacy interests of applicants who had completed applications that stated that the application would not be publicly disclosed. In turn, Judge Smith advised the commonwealth to change its procedures and update its voter registration application by removing the language that states voter registration information not subject to public disclosure.
Despite this victory, Virginia continued to charge exorbitant fees for voter registration records, in violation of the NVRA (which ensures such records are provided for free beyond reasonable costs of photocopying). Project Vote sent a notice letter to the chairman of the State Board of Elections in October 2012, and in April 2013 the SBE issued new
written guidance to election officials, directing them to provide access
to such records for free, and authorizing them to only charge for reasonable
Complaint. February 2010.
Virginia Appellate Brief. September 2011.
Amicus Brief of the United States Department of Justice Supporting Plaintiff-Appellee. October 18, 2011.
Consent Decree. January 30, 2013.
Notice Letter Regarding Fees for VR Records. October 30, 2012.
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