States across the country are adopting election transparency laws in response to the disaster of 2020.
Originally appeared in The American Conservative (March 8, 2023)
Americans everywhere are demanding greater access to voter rolls with an eye to election security, but many states—including some run by Republicans—are making it harder for citizens to exercise oversight. Why care? Because the condition of a state’s voter rolls indicates its election “health.” Clean, up-to-date lists make it harder for fraudsters to cheat, whereas those bloated with potential double-voters put a state on the road to becoming a banana republic.
In short, access to voter rolls is necessary for public trust in elections. But some states have been slow to purge their rolls of voters who have moved out of state, died, or committed certain felonies, often because of politically motivated lawsuits from the federal government or activist groups. In 2012, Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder sued to stop Florida from purging its rolls of noncitizens who were unlawfully registered to vote. He tried it again with Ohio in 2016, when the Justice Department filed an amicus brief supporting an advocacy group suing the state for trying to remove inactive voters from its rolls, until the Supreme Court sided with Ohio.
Partisan “progressive” groups are routinely contemptuous of this sort of clean up. The left-wing Brennan Center calls voter roll purges “an often-flawed process” that can “disenfranchise eligible voters.” The Fair Elections Center, created to attack conservatives by one of Washington’s biggest “dark money” networks, has claimed the process targets “more urban voters [and] more people of color” because “anti-voter groups [are] looking for less participation rather than more.”
Leftists won’t do anything to fix the problem, but the winning answer for conservatives is clear: Give citizens access to the voter rolls so they can do the oversight work themselves.
The Voter Reference Foundation’s Transparency Scorecard makes it easy for the curious to assess their state’s voter file accessibility at a glance. Some results are surprising: Colorado, Arkansas, Nevada, and New York all rank highly because they make it easy and cheap for individuals to acquire the data. Others are the opposite. Massachusetts makes data requests difficult and provides almost no important details. That Illinois, Hawaii, and California spurn election transparency will surprise no one; yet conservative Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee are similarly opaque.
Some states allow individuals to release their voter list online; others prohibit publication. Some update the file daily or monthly, while others only upon request, and may bar access to historical snapshots of the voter file. Certain states make it easy to download the files, while others mail it in a USB or disk. Many limit access to residents, or residents who get state approval, or even just to state committees (PACs). Indiana limits complete access to PACs, the media, and elected officials—bolstering politicians seeking reelection.
Amazingly, some states even charge tens of thousands of dollars for access to their voter file—$36,000 in Alabama’s case—while a few force buyers to mail a check instead of using a credit card. How many concerned citizens can afford that barrier to entry?
Last year in Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin signed into law legislation (S.B. 698) that prohibits the Old Dominion from publishing its voter file. Nebraska did the same in 2021 (LB 285). Disappointing for those who want to safeguard elections—but fortunately they run against the grain.
Iowa legislators recently introduced a bill (S.F. 351) requiring the state registrar to immediately provide the voter file upon request, and inserts provisions which encourage citizens to help maintain the database. Texas, too, has new legislation (H.B. 2860) requiring counties make their voter registration lists searchable and downloadable.
A pair of bipartisan bills in the Arizona legislature (S.B. 1324 and H.B. 2560) mandates counties publish their voter lists ten days before Election Day and post a list of voters who cast a ballot immediately afterward. Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, Adrian Fontes, supports the bill. In New Hampshire, Democrats and Republicans both support a bill (H.B. 415) that would make all images of ballots cast in an election publicly viewable.
Wyoming Republican Governor Mark Gordon signed into law legislation (H.B. 5) increasing the transparency in the state’s voter file. Individuals who request the list now have access to voters’ registration date and status as well as a unique identifying number for each absentee ballot, making them far easier to trace. Even liberal Washington, where Democrats have long pushed all-mail elections and opposed voter identification laws, introduced a bill (S.B. 5459) that aims to increase election “transparency” and “public access” to election-related documents (though the specifics remain elusive).
It is a testament to the American character that so many of these victories are the fruit of efforts by grassroots watchdog groups that sprung up nationwide after the disastrously managed 2020 election—not professional activists in Washington, D.C. It’s something America’s revolutionary generation would’ve recognized: A citizen-led revival of (little-r) republicanism, where the people assert their will on the leadership instead of the other way around. That ought to encourage Americans who have watched their country tumble into the abyss—but there’s still a long way to go before we’re free again.