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Alabama’s voter records must be disclosed, but digital format not required, court says

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Alabama’s voter records must be disclosed, but digital format not required, court says

Jun 27, 2024 | 7:59 am ET
By Alander Rocha
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Alabama’s voter records must be disclosed, but digital format not required, court says
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Alabama must disclose voter records, but digital format not required, in a case involving Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama Secretary of State. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday ruled that while Alabama must disclose certain voter records upon request, the state is not required to provide them in electronic format.

The ruling involves Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM) and the Alabama Secretary of State. In 2021, GBM requested voter registration records to assist previously disenfranchised individuals in restoring their voting rights. When Alabama’s Secretary of State denied the request for electronic records, GBM filed a lawsuit in 2022, claiming that the refusal violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

That year, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of GBM, requiring former Secretary of State John Merrill to provide at a “reasonable fee” voter registration records “based on the actual costs that defendant Merrill incurs in their production to Greater Birmingham Ministries.”

The appellate court ruled the NVRA requires the public to have access to lists of people who were removed from voter rolls or denied registration because of disqualifying felonies, meaning Alabama must disclose these records upon request.

However, the court reversed the district court’s ruling that required records be provided electronically. The appellate court stated that the NVRA requires records to be available for public inspection, but it does not say they must be provided in digital form.

“‘Public inspection’ as used in the National Voter Registration Act does not include electronic disclosure. Congress has recognized this shortcoming in (Freedom of Information Act) but has not acted for the National Voter Registration Act,” wrote U.S Circuit Judge Britt C. Grant in the majority opinion.  “No amount of purpose-driven inference can expand the meaning of a statute, and we cannot step in to help.”

The decision was first reported by Courthouse News.

The appellate court sent the case back to the district court, removing the need to provide records digitally.

Messages seeking comment were left Wednesday with Scott Douglas, executive director of GBM, and with the Alabama Secretary of State’s office.

U.S. Circuit Judge Nancy G. Abudu partially dissented, arguing that the NVRA’s language and purpose require making records available in a way that ensures public access. In this case, she wrote that it means providing them electronically.

“Considering the impracticality of the secretary’s public inspection policy, the absence of any valid rationale supporting that policy, and the low burden the secretary bears for producing digital records, his persistent refusal to provide records requested pursuant to the NVRA in digital format equates to evading the NVRA’s disclosure requirements,” Abudu wrote.

The Secretary of State’s office had initially charged a fee of one cent per name for electronic records and one dollar per page for hard copies. GBM was initially charged  $1,591.37, but GBM agreed to pay $429.17, the cost of production. The district court had ruled that only reasonable costs tied to the actual production expenses could be charged, a decision now under reconsideration following the appellate ruling.

“Because the act does not require electronic disclosure, it also does not decide what fee, if any, the secretary would be entitled to charge for the electronic records sought here,” Grant wrote.