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Judge rejects challenge to law limiting access to voter rolls

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000


TAMPA -- A federal judge this week dismissed a lawsuit designed to overturn a state law that allows politicians to get copies of voter registration lists but prohibits such access to the public.

The lawsuit had been filed by the publishing companies of the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald and the First Amendment Foundation, which argued that it is unconstitutional to allow some groups to get copies of the rolls and not others.

At issue was different ways in which access to voter information is controlled: State law allows political parties, candidates for public office and several other preferred entities to get massive compilations of voter information, frequently on computer discs. Political consultants often use such data to compile mailing lists and formulate strategy.

However, the public -- including newspapers -- is allowed only to look at the information. No copies may be made.

U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew signed an order Tuesday dismissing the lawsuit against Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. It said the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to see and publish voter information were not compromised by the law.

"The plaintiffs in this case have full access to the voter rolls and registration information, and they have full freedom to publish any information they obtain as a result of viewing the voter rolls and registration information," the order said.

Paul C. Tash, Times editor and president, said he was disappointed by the judge's ruling.

"I think the work of the Miami Herald in exposing fraud in the Miami elections demonstrates the clear value of public access to these records," Tash said, referring to a series of Herald stories about the 1997 election that won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting.

The Herald found pervasive voter fraud -- such as votes cast by dead people -- in a painstaking review of voter registration lists.

"We were also hoping that the judge would decide that the average citizen should have as much access to the voter registration rolls as do the professional politicians and the political parties," Tash said.

Tash said he had not yet had an opportunity to talk with the other plaintiffs and therefore did not know whether they would appeal the decision.

"We're considering our options," Tash said.

Ruggles, the supervisor of elections, could not be reached for comment.

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