Two recent court decisions uphold the principle that the best government is an open government, even down to the very basic level of how our government officials are chosen.
The two cases — one in West Virginia and the other in Virginia but also applicable to the Mountain State — had to do with elections. In both, the court ruled on the side of transparency, supporting the idea that government is best held accountable by an informed citizenry.
In the West Virginia case, a Kanawha Circuit judge said a state law forbidding anyone from disclosing a complaint of an election law violation or investigation was unconstitutional because it was too broad in restricting speech. The law says that anyone who discloses an elections complaint, investigation or report can be found guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 to $5,000 fine and a jail term of between six and 12 months.
The ruling grew out of a case involving Thomas Harding, then-publisher of The Observer newspaper who challenged the law after his attempt to cover a 2009 referendum in Jefferson County yielded an elections complaint, reported. His lawsuit said he was in a polling place when he photographed a poll worker who had also organized and led the petition drive that prompted the referendum — an obvious conflict of interest in regard to ensuring that the referendum was conducted objectively.
The law struck down by Judge Duke Bloom may have had some valid reasons behind it, such as protecting the identity of those under investigation in case they are later cleared and protecting the integrity of the investigation. However, keeping complaints and investigations secret from the public simply makes it too easy for possible wrongdoing to be swept under the rug. In addition, members of the public may have pertinent information to share — if they are aware of an investigation.
In Virginia, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a law there restricting public access to voter registration applications is superseded by the National Voting Rights Act, which requires that voter records be open. A lawsuit had been filed by a group that had been denied access to the voter registration applications of students at historically black Norfolk State University. Those students said they were prohibited from voting in the 2008 presidential election.
The court wrote that state officials are accountable for accurately ensuring that voter lists include eligible voters and exclude ineligible ones. Again, a public that has access to specific information can provide relevant information that would be helpful toward achieving that goal.
The court also wrote that “Without such transparency, public confidence in the essential workings of democracy will suffer.” That is applicable to both cases.
The overriding goal for all elections is to ensure that they are conducted fairly and those who are eligible are able to exercise their right to vote. All facets of the process — including any allegations of improprieties — should be transparent to best ensure the integrity of those elections.
— Distributed by The Associated Press