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Federal judges weigh whether Maine voter list can be published by conservative voter fraud group

In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, ballot boxes are brought into for a ranked choice voting tabulation in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, ballot boxes are brought into for a ranked choice voting tabulation in Augusta, Maine.

A panel of judges in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday in a case that could determine whether a conservative group can publish identifying information about Maine voters.

Thursday's arguments stemmed from a 2019 lawsuit brought by the Public Interest Legal Foundation against the Maine Secretary of State's Office which refused to provide its voter registration list to a group devoted to proving the existence of rampant voter fraud.

At the time, the state only provided its voter registration list to candidates and political parties. But in 2021, Gov. Janet Mills signed a law that allowed other organizations to obtain the lists so long as voter identifying information isn't published.

The foundation argues those privacy protections run afoul of federal law and impede its efforts to compare voting lists across multiple states.

Assistant attorney general Jonathan Bolton, who is defending the Secretary of State, told the panel that the 2021 law allows the foundation to review Maine's methods of culling and verifying the accuracy of its voter rolls.

"Does it have a federal right — not just to evaluate and criticize maintenance practices, which we agree that it does -- but to include in its published reports, individual voter names, their resident addresses, their party affiliations, the elections they voted in?" Bolton said.

The U.S. Justice Department argued that Maine is required to disclose the voting lists, but it also urged the federal appeals court to let Maine's law court review the 2021 law's privacy protections.

PILF's attempts to prove voter fraud have been criticized by voting rights activists. In 2019, a defamation lawsuit against PILF forced it to apologize after it published the names and addresses of several Virginia voters it had wrongly accused of being noncitizens and felony voter fraud.

The group is led by several conservative activists who have long argued that voter fraud calls for tighter restrictions on voting. According to 2021 tax records, the group included attorney John Eastman and Cleta Mitchell as employees or officers. Mitchell is among a group of attorneys who made sweeping and unsubstantiated claims of voting irregularities in an attempt to cast doubt on the 2020 presidential election. Eastman, who is no longer listed as a board member on the group’s website, was recently indicted by a Georgia grand jury on charges alleging an illegal plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

— This story was updated on Oct. 6 to clarify that John Eastman is no longer on PILF’s board.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.