Maine Secretary of State Fights to Preserve Restrictions, Penalties for Publicizing Errors on Voter Rolls
Maine Secretary of State Fights to Preserve Restrictions, Penalties for Publicizing Errors on Voter Rolls

By Steven Kovac

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) wants to know if some people are registered to vote in the state of Maine and the state of New York at the same time.

To get the answer to that question and more, in October 2019, PILF requested a copy of Maine’s statewide voter roll from the secretary of state’s office.

The request was denied and a four-year-long legal battle with Maine’s Democrat establishment ensued.

Both houses of the state legislature have Democrat majorities and the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the governor are all Democrats.

In February 2020, PILF filed a lawsuit in a federal district court alleging that Maine’s election law that limited access to the state voter roll to a few specified entities, such as political parties, violated the National Voting Rights Act of 1993 (NVRA).

In order to moot PILF’s case, the Democrat-controlled state legislature, with the approval of Gov. Janet Mills, changed the statute to allow broader access to the voter roll but with restrictions that narrowly confined the scope of any examination of the rolls to determining if Maine was carrying out its roll maintenance obligations.

The new law banned individuals from publicizing any findings of error that included specific data entries on the state voter roll under penalty of hefty fines.

Legal Maneuvers

The changes effectively prohibited PILF from comparing Maine’s state voter roll with that of New York state to see if there were any double registrations.

J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF). (Courtesy of PILF)

Many New Yorkers own summer homes in the popular resort areas of Maine.

In response to the new statute, PILF challenged the use restrictions and fines in an amended complaint.

The issues PILF raised in its lawsuit were decided in March 2023, when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Maine’s election statutes restricting the use of the state voter roll and the fines aimed at silencing investigators were in violation of the NVRA.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, appealed the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. (Department of the Secretary of State)

On Oct. 5, in oral arguments on behalf of the state, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Bolton told the three-judge appeals panel that the government is trying to prevent the publicizing of the personal identity information of the voters of Maine.

Mr. Bolton told the court that the penalties for publicizing errors on the roll were not criminal sanctions but rather civil enforcement actions and that the plain language of the statutes in question was not contrary to federal law, though he conceded they could have been “worded better.”

PILF attorney Noel Johnson countered, telling the court that Congress designed the NVRA to make voter registration and list maintenance transparent.

He stated that “Maine is thwarting Congress’s objectives and punishing and silencing critics.”

Mr. Johnson said the district court’s decision was faithful to the text of the NVRA and that it “committed no errors.”

Silencing Critics

Following the hearing, PILF President J. Christian Adams commented, “Maine has passed a law allowing the government to silence individuals from criticizing election officials.

“This case will have far-reaching consequences for clean elections and the ability of voters to hold their election officials accountable.”

Recently, PILF has won lawsuits in Maryland and Illinois that gave investigators, researchers, and the public access to the voter rolls in those states—wins that led the U.S. Department of Justice to adopt the foundation’s position and file an amicus brief with the First Circuit Court of Appeals supporting PILF’s right to obtain Maine’s voter roll.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills in 2019. (Rebecca Hammel/U.S. Senate/Public Domain)

A Troubling Trend

In a statement to the press, PILF said, “By appealing the lower court’s ruling, Secretary of State Bellows continues to fight transparency in Maine’s elections.

“Maine’s law penalizes speech that is critical of the state’s election officials. Americans should not face fines or lawsuits for speaking about failures in election administration.

“The only people who benefit from Maine’s speech restrictions are the government officials who are protected from critics,” the legal group said.

“This law is part of a troubling trend by states to dictate how concerned citizens may research voter rolls while acting under their NVRA inspection rights,” it added.

According to its website, the Public Interest Legal Foundation is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to the cause of election integrity and “the fight against lawlessness in American elections.”

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