This case required the Commonwealth Court to construe the Right to Know Law (RTKL), 65 P.S. §§ 67.101–67.3104, together with the Pennsylvania Voter Registration Act (VRA), 25 Pa. C.S. §§ 1101–1906. The court affirmed a decision by the Office of Open Records (OOR) and held that the RTKL does not govern the disclosure of voter registration information because the VRA and the Pennsylvania Department of State’s (DOS) pertinent regulations expressly establish the procedures for making that information public. As such, the DOS may require compliance with the VRA and relevant regulations even if such a request is submitted under the RTKL.
The Pennsylvanians for Union Reform (PFUR) requested the names, birth dates, and addresses of registered voters throughout the Commonwealth from DOS. PFUR argued that this information was a public record subject to disclosure under the RTKL. DOS conditioned its disclosure of the information on PFUR’s completion of the “Request for Voter Lists from the Department of State Form,” pursuant to the VRA. The form requires a requester to (1) affirm that the records would not be used for purposes unrelated to elections, political activities, or law enforcement and (2) present DOS with identification and a twenty-dollar fee.
PFUR appealed to the OOR and argued that, as a corporation, it could not produce the proof of identification required by the VRA. PFUR further contended that DOS acted arbitrarily in applying the requirements of the VRA, rather than the RTKL. The OOR dismissed PFUR’s claim, and PFUR appealed. On appeal, PFUR contended that DOS cannot dictate which laws a requester may use to access public records or condition access on compliance with a different statute than the one chosen. DOS responded by arguing that the VRA and the RTKL must be read together.
The Commonwealth Court affirmed the OOR’s final determination. Significant to its decision was a provision of the RTKL that states: “if the provisions of [the RTKL] regarding access to records conflict with any other . . . state law, the provisions of [the RTKL] shall not apply. 65 P.S. § 67.3101.1 (emphasis added). The VRA governs “public information lists” and was intended to provide political candidates or public officials with a method of identifying constituents. DOS has authority under the VRA to regulate access to such lists in furtherance of this purpose. As a result, the VRA and the RTKL are in direct conflict regarding access to records of voter information. Section 67.3101.1 of the RTKL mandates that the VRA applies, rather than the RTKL. Therefore, the court determined that DOS had the authority to respond to RTKL requests for voter information by requiring requestors to comply with the VRA.
Click here to read: Pennsylvanians for Union Reform v. Pa. Dep’t of State, No. 1852 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Commw. Ct. May 23, 2016).
Bob Turchick, Law Clerk
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