RICHMOND, Va. - A voter advocacy group says a federal appeals court ruling giving the public access to Virginia's voter registration applications has national implications.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court's ruling that a Virginia law restricting access to the information is trumped by a provision in the National Voting Rights Act that requires that voter records be open.
The ruling was a victory for the nonprofit group Project Vote, which sued state and local election officials after being denied access to the voter registration applications of students at historically black Norfolk State University, who claimed they were prohibited from voting in the 2008 presidential election.
Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote, said last week's ruling is too late to help the Norfolk State students, but it will give his organization leverage whenever it seeks voter registration applications in investigations throughout the country.
"This gives us a tool to open up the registration process, let some sunshine in and make sure election officials aren't denying registrations based on partisan or racial motives," Slater said Tuesday.
Project Vote's attorney, Ryan Malone, said the ruling is the first of its kind nationally. Although the Richmond-based appeals court's decisions are binding only in Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Maryland, Malone said the ruling "will be cited in a lot of courts nationwide."
The Virginia attorney general's office, which had appealed U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith's ruling to the 4th Circuit, said no further appeal is planned.
The attorney general had argued that the state law protects the privacy of voters. The appeals court said voters' Social Security numbers should be redacted from applications made available to the public but added that any other privacy concerns are outweighed by the benefits of disclosure.
"State officials labor under a duty of accountability to the public in ensuring that voter lists include eligible voters and exclude ineligible ones in the most accurate manner possible," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote. "Without such transparency, public confidence in the essential workings of democracy will suffer."
Several national media organizations, including The Associated Press, filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Project Vote's position.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)