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Appeals court sides with conservative group, says Maine should disclose info on state's voters

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.

An appeals court has sided with a conservative nonprofit, finding that Maine's restrictions on the release of identifying information from its voter rolls violates federal law.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation is challenging restrictions that the state imposed on the release of data from its voter file, which includes the names, addresses, voter status and other information on all Maine voters.

For years, the state restricted the release of that information to only political campaigns. Three years ago, lawmakers added an exception that would allow the data to be shared with other groups, in order to ensure the state is compliant with federal voting laws. But the law said that no information could be shared publicly that would identify specific voters.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows has said those measures are intended to protect voter privacy, but the foundation challenged those restrictions. And late last week, an appeals court sided with the group and affirmed an earlier ruling.
In its decision, the court said the state law is pre-empted by the National Voter Registration Act, and that releasing information to the public is "necessary" if groups are ever going to "identify, address, and fix irregularities in states' voter rolls" through federal law.

The court also notes that there are other federal statutes that address privacy concerns, and that the "proper redaction of certain personal information in the Voter File can further assuage the potential privacy risks implicated by the public release of the Voter File."

Lauren Bowman Bis, the communication director for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, described the ruling as a "victory" and said it would allow her group to compare Maine's voter rolls with those in other states.

"We really thought this was a victory for transparency, and just being able to use the voter roll to point out errors and problems across the country" Bis said.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said she was disappointed in the ruling, and is concerned that releasing that information could be an invasion of voter privacy.

"Given recent events, I'm deeply concerned about voters who've experienced online or offline harassment campaigns," Bellows said. "And I worry that some voters might be dissuaded from registering to vote, because of fears about their data now being potentially published online."

Bellows said her office has yet to decide if it will appeal the ruling. Bellows added that the law continues to prohibit any discrimination against voters, and her office will "do everything in our power to protect voter information from abuse, in accordance with the law, and what the court has directed us to do."

The Public Interest Legal Foundation has filed similar lawsuits in Maryland and Illinois, which led both states to ultimately disclose voter information.