Maine’s voter rolls must be made available for public inspection, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
Writing for the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Gustavo Gelpí, a Biden appointee, ruled that Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows must allow the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) to inspect the state’s voter rolls as specified under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Bellows, a Democrat, is currently engaged in a legally suspect attempt to kick former President Donald Trump off of Maine’s 2024 presidential primary ballot.
“[W]hether voter registration rolls are accurate and current cannot be determined without inspecting the Voter File … In other words, the evaluation of voter registration rolls would be impossible if the results of Maine’s voter list registration and maintenance activities were not subject to public disclosure,” Gelpí wrote. “For the above reasons, Maine’s Voter File is a ‘record concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters’ and is thus subject to disclosure under Section 8 [of the NVRA].”
The entire saga began in October 2019 when PILF requested a copy of Maine’s voter file and “voting histories.” The office of then-Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, denied PILF’s request, “citing state law that limited access to preferred entities like political parties.” This prompted the conservative legal group to sue Dunlap’s office in February 2020.
According to PILF, Maine altered its laws in 2021 to prevent watchdog groups “from using the [voter] file to perform research not pre-approved by the legislature.” These prohibited research activities included comparing Maine’s voter roll data to another state’s to identify potentially invalid registrations. “Anything other than ‘evaluating’ Maine’s own compliance with voter list maintenance obligations would risk severe fines for unauthorized use,” a PILF press release noted.
PILF amended its complaint in response, alleging that these fines constituted a violation of the NVRA. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maine ultimately agreed, ruling in March 2023 that the NVRA “preempts” Maine’s “impermissible” restrictions and fines regarding the use of the state’s voter file. This prompted Bellows to appeal the ruling.
In addition to granting PILF access to Maine’s voter rolls, Gelpí similarly determined that the provisions of the NVRA preempt the fines enacted by the state. He wrote, “the restrictions imposed by the Use Ban erect an impenetrable barrier for those seeking to use the Voter File to evaluate and enforce compliance with the NVRA nationwide.”
PILF President J. Christian Adams celebrated Friday’s decision in a statement, calling it a “monumental victory for transparency in elections.”
“Other states should think twice before passing laws that restrict the public from accessing the voter file and speaking about any errors,” Adams said.
While it’s unclear if Bellows will appeal Gelpí’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Democrat secretary of state dramatically told the Associated Press that her office will “do everything in [its] power in accordance with the law and court decision to protect voter information from abuse.”
Shawn Fleetwood is a staff writer for The Federalist and a graduate of the University of Mary Washington. He previously served as a state content writer for Convention of States Action and his work has been featured in numerous outlets, including RealClearPolitics, RealClearHealth, and Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnFleetwood
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