Backers of a proposed charter change that would force action on Richmond Public Schools’ outdated facilities are suing state election officials for access to a restricted list of registered voters.
The suit seeks immediate access to the list and poses a legal challenge to the constitutionality of limitations on who may access the information, which is publicly available at local voter registrar’s offices in a different format.
In a 25-page complaint filed late Friday in Richmond Circuit Court, referendum advocate Paul Goldman argues that denial of access to the list violates his First Amendment rights and his Constitutional guarantee to “equal protection of the laws” under the 14th Amendment.
“There is no compelling state interest that would justify providing this unique Richmond Registered Voters List available to (others) … but not to Plaintiff,” Goldman writes in the complaint, which names the Department of Elections along with Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortes and the members of the Board of Elections as defendants.
The list would cost about $300 and would allow Goldman to manipulate data into block-by-block plans for soliciting signatures of registered voters needed to secure the referendum a spot on November’s ballot. If he went to the registrar’s office he would have to look up registered voters one by one.
“It’s public information, no matter how you look at it, and there’s no reason why candidates should be able to access it differently than we can,” he said.
The proposal to change the city’s charter, if approved by Richmond voters and the state General Assembly, would give Mayor Levar Stoney six months to either develop a fully funded plan for overhauling the division’s outdated facilities without raising taxes to pay for it or declare the feat impossible.
Next month marks the cutoff for Goldman and dozens of other supporters to gather the nearly 10,400 signatures of registered voters needed to have the issue appear on the ballot in November.
Referendum proponents made strides in a grassroots drive timed to coincide with party primaries in June. But with about 7,000 signatures gathered to date, the movement is still a few thousand short.
State law specifies that the list be made available to courts, “candidates for election or political party nomination to further their candidacy, political party committees or officials thereof for political purposes only,” qualifying political action committees, incumbent office holders, local government entities and nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting voter registration and participation.
“We are asking the court to declare the statute unconstitutional and unconstitutional as applied to me, but that will take too much time,” Goldman said. “So we are asking for a preliminary injunction and a copy of the list.”
Goldman said state election officials first said they were unsure whether he was eligible to purchase the list and referred him to an agency lawyer who did not answer his questions.
Ultimately, officials offered Goldman a copy of the list under the condition he sign language stipulating he could be eligible for up to 10 years in prison if he used the list incorrectly, or was ineligible to receive it, the suit states.
“Listen, there are plenty of ways to get access to this thing off-books if you really want it, but I’m trying to do this the right way,” he said. “And I don’t want to go to prison.”
Cortes, the Department of Elections commissioner, did not immediately respond to an interview request Friday evening.
City officials proposed plans for overhauling the division’s outdated, inadequate facilities in 2002, 2007 and 2012 that have since collected dust on office shelves.
The latest — in 2015 — also sought to bring the division’s decades’-old building woes to an end. But leaking roofs, ancient HVAC systems and the ear-busting din of elementary schools without functional walls remain. So, too, does the overwhelming stench of urine in schools with long-term plumbing issues. The city’s ability to take on debt for the heavy lifting envisioned by 2015 plan architects remains hamstrung by past spending on other big-ticket items.
Goldman said Aug. 18 is the deadline for charter change organizers to guarantee the referendum a spot on November’s ballot.