Fourth Circuit Revives Bid for Access to North Carolina Voting Documents

The Fourth Circuit vacated a lower court’s order denying the Public Interest Legal Foundation’s bid for U.S. citizenship-related voter records in North Carolina. 

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The Fourth Circuit on Monday revived an election watchdog’s challenge seeking documents in North Carolina that relate to the citizenship status of registered voters. 

“Upon our review, we hold that the district court erred in dismissing the complaint at this stage of the proceedings. Because discovery was not conducted, we cannot discern on this record whether the foundation may be entitled to disclosure of some of the documents requested,” U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan wrote in a 22-page opinion issued Monday. 

The Public Interest Legal Foundation sued the North Carolina State Board of Elections in 2019, alleging a violation of the disclosure provision in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).

In 2018, the group had sought disclosure of voter records of North Carolina registrants whom the elections board had “identified as potentially failing to satisfy the statutory citizenship requirement.”  

Those documents, which the elections board refused to turn over, included completed voter application forms that would be redacted for social security numbers and signatures. 

The foundation had also requested information concerning “the actions county election officials have taken to identify and cancel registrations” of those who did not meet citizenship requirements under North Carolina elections law.  

The group says that it regularly uses the public disclosure provision among other open records laws in order to disseminate information through reports, articles, blog and social media posts and newsletters.

When North Carolina’s elections officials refused to hand over information that the group considers to be public record, attorneys with the foundation said, they had no other recourse but to sue the board and former executive director Karen Brinson Bell. 

U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle dismissed the case, concluding the foundation failed to state a claim under the NVRA. Boyle attributed his decision to the “sensitive nature” of the requested information. 

But the Fourth Circuit panel remanded the case to Boyle for further consideration. 

“On remand, the district court is required to evaluate which documents the Board possesses that are potentially subject to disclosure under the NVRA. Then it must evaluate which of those documents should be shielded from disclosure on the bases identified above,” wrote Keenan, a Barack Obama appointee.

Once Boyle decides which documents if any must be turned over, it will need to start redacting specific sensitive information, “including the names of those identified by the board as potential noncitizens,” she wrote. 

Keenan noted the panel agrees with Boyle that disclosure of sensitive documents such as birth certificates and passports “would present similar concerns as the sharing of Social Security numbers.” 

U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Roger Gregory, a Bill Clinton appointee, and George W. Bush appointee U.S. Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee joined Keenan’s opinion.

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