Right-Wing Legal Group Targets States Exempt From Releasing Voter Registration Lists

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), a right-wing legal group, has filed lawsuits in numerous states to try to gain access to their voter registration records ahead of the 2024 election. 

Recently, the organization has focused on targeting the states that are exempt from the National Voter Registration Act’s (NVRA) provision requiring states to disclose their voter rolls. PILF has started with Minnesota and Wisconsin, but there are four other exempt states that the legal group could sink its teeth into next — Idaho, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Wyoming.

“No state should be exempt from transparency,” said PILF President, J. Christian Adams in a release. “All states should be treated equally under the law and no exemption should allow certain election officials to hide documents relating to voter list maintenance activities. This lawsuit is the first step to bringing the National Voter Registration Act’s transparency requirements to all 50 states.”

The NVRA’s Public Disclosure Provision requires states to publicly share how they maintain their voter lists for a period of at least two years.

Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming are exempt from this under Section 4 of the NVRA because they did not have a voter registration requirement or they allowed same-day registration prior to Aug. 1, 1994, over a year after the law was passed in May of 1993.

During a congressional hearing on noncitizen voting on Thursday, Adams said that “Congress should strongly consider ending the exemption.”

PILF filed lawsuits on April 30 in Minnesota and Wisconsin using this argument — that these states should not be exempt. Minnesota Sec. of State Steve Simon (D) and Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, have not yet responded to the lawsuits.

Though the lawsuits were filed in recent weeks, PILF’s attempts to access the two states’ voter rolls began back in January when the group requested copies of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s voter registration lists. 

The Wisconsin Election Commission said it could provide the official voter registration list for a fee, but would not include the birth year information that PILF requested because state law allows the commission to restrict access to certain details. PILF argued in its lawsuit that the election commission must produce this information.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon’s (D) office denied PILF’s request, explaining that the state only provides this information to registered voters in the state. PILF argued in its complaint that the state must provide the voter registration list to any member of the public, regardless of where they live in the country.

The organization is not just targeting the non-exempt states; PILF also has active cases in Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan and South Carolina

PILF recently won its case in Illinois with a March 2022 decision from a federal district court. The court said that Illinois’ Section 5/1A-25 limitation on the public disclosure of the statewide voter registration list violates the Public Disclosure Provision of the NVRA. 

The group can afford to fund these lawsuits with support from right-wing dark money groups.

PILF wants access to states’ voter rolls because the group claims that many states are not updating their lists properly. In Michigan, for example, the legal group argues that the state still has deceased registrants on its voter rolls, an argument the group has made about other states as well. 

“The Sixth Circuit will get to decide if it is reasonable to allow the names of deceased registrants to haunt the voter roll for decades after their death,” said PILF President, J. Christian Adams when the group appealed a decision in its Michigan case. “People should not remain on the voter register for twenty years following their death. This case will set the standard for what ‘reasonable’ list maintenance is under federal law.”

However, others claim that this is not the whole story and that PILF is purging eligible voters from states’ voter registration lists and spreading lies about elections.

“Mr. Adams has a history of making unfounded allegations about illegal voting,” Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said at the Thursday congressional hearing. “The allegations were so egregious and so damaging to innocent people and families that a federal court had to step in in 2016.”

She was referring to PILF’s false 2016 report called “Alien Invasion in Virginia” that published the names of over a thousand Virginia voters the organization claimed to be noncitizens. Three citizens filed suit, accusing PILF of defamation and voter intimidation. PILF settled with them last year, agreeing to remove their names from its website with Adams apologizing.

PILF was founded in 2012 and has been peddling this type of disinformation about mass election fraud since then. Adams has been the president of the group since 2015, according to the organization’s annual tax filings, and he’s a close ally of former President Donald Trump, who appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

PILF is far from the only group filing these types of lawsuits in court that tries to access states’ voter registration records. 

According to Democracy Docket’s election litigation tracker, there are currently 16 active cases from right-wing groups and Republican voters challenging states’ voter rolls.

These cases were filed by the Voter Reference Foundation in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, the United Sovereign Americans in Maryland, Judicial Watch in Illinois and California and the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Michigan and Nevada. All of these cases are active.

The League of Women Voters released a statement last month on their motion to intervene in the RNC’s Michigan case.

“Inaccurate voter purges undermine the very foundation of our democracy, disenfranchising voters, especially voters of color,” said Denise Hartsough, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan. 

Celina Stewart, chief counsel and the senior director of advocacy and litigation of Michigan’s League of Women Voters chapter, posited that the RNC’s lawsuit  “is a blatant attempt to disenfranchise eligible voters, strip away the voice of the people, and threaten access to our electoral system,” and that “we are seeing similar legal efforts to undermine elections around the country.” 

Ahead of the 2024 election, voters could be removed from registration lists if PILF and these other groups are successful in gaining access to the records.