Survey: Montana, Florida give best access to election information
A state-by-state ranking is available at www.citizenaccess.org by clicking on Election Records, Overall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Next week’s elections may change the country’s political landscape, but residents of some states will have a much easier time than those of others if they want to examine the results for themselves, according to new University of Florida research.
Laws in Montana and Florida provide access to the most election information, while Rhode Island’s and North Dakota’s laws provide access to the least, UF researchers say.
Survey results, released this week from the Marion Brechner Center Citizen Access Project at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications, show that overall, Montana’s laws ranked the highest. Montana requires that “all records” pertaining to elections and voter registration are public records” unless “designated otherwise.”
In Florida, election boards must post at poll sites the results of the vote for each office or item on the ballots. A certificate of the results must be delivered to the supervisor of elections for immediate publication. Each county canvassing board must file a public report with the state Division of Elections on the conduct of the election, including information on equipment malfunctions or other difficulties or unusual circumstances.
“Many people laughed at Florida’s hanging chads six years ago,” said Bill Chamberlin, an eminent scholar of mass communications in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications, “but what many Floridians knew was that we could at least by law see the ballots. That’s not true in many states.”
Rounding out the top five states in public access to election-related records are Delaware, New York and Ohio.
Montana, even with its high score, didn’t receive a perfect from the project’s Sunshine Review Board. The state scored “5” on the Citizen Access Project Sunshine Index of 1 (being the lowest) to 7 for elections records access. Chamberlin said states didn’t receive higher scores primarily because no state performs high across the multiple categories rated – voting registration records, ballots, vote tallies and other records associated with elections such as poll books and inspection reports.
“In an era when the public questions voters’ access, new voting equipment and revised voting systems, it only makes sense that by law the public has a way to check up on the voting process,” said Joel Campbell, Freedom of Information Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists. “Transparency only helps build more confidence in the fairness of elections. Clearly, some states need to update their laws to allow better public oversight.”
Rhode Island, one of the least accessible states, has no law allowing, or prohibiting, the public inspection of election records other than election tallies and voter registration lists. North Dakota ranked low because it has no law governing access to election records and the state’s voter registration list is available only to political parties and candidates.
Other low-ranked states include Hawaii, Nebraska and Arkansas, all of which received slightly more than 3 on the Citizen Access Project Sunshine Index.
Statutes in Maine, Indiana, and New Hampshire declare that ballots are not public records. At least 19 other states restrict access to ballots except under special authority, usually through a court order. They are: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The Citizen Access Project’s Sunshine Review Board members who participated in ratings of election records included Shannon Martin, Charles Tobin, Harry Hammitt, Frosty Landon, Ian Marquand, Linda Lightfoot, Kevin Goldberg, Eric Turner, Patrice McDermott, Suzanne Piotrowski, Sandy Davidson, Joe Davis and Susan Ross. They specialize in access to government information as public officials, university professors, journalists or lawyers.
The Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project is building a database of open meetings and open records law summaries from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It ranks state laws and then posts the comparisons online with appropriate summaries and citations. The project is funded by Marion Brechner, an Orlando, Fla., broadcast executive.
For more information about the project, visit www.citizenaccess.org.