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Court weighs clash on online publication of voting records

A voter, left, provides a signature to receive a ballot at a makeshift polling station inside a parking garage in Santa Fe on May 5, 2020. New Mexico election regulators are resisting efforts by a conservative-backed foundation to post statewide voter registration information on a public website where it can be searched by names or addresses to view party affiliations and past participation in elections. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press file)

ALBUQUERQUE – A conservative-backed foundation that aims to post online registration records for voters across the country urged a federal judge Tuesday to override objections by New Mexico election regulators who say the initiative violates state law and would discourage people from registering to vote out of privacy concerns. The VoteRef.com website does not list details of how people voted regarding candidates or initiatives.

The Voter Reference Foundation has posted voter rolls from at least 20 states that can be searched by names or addresses to verify where people live and view whether they voted in various past elections.

A companion website highlights the difference between the number of ballots cast according to certified election results and the number of people listed as having voted on registration rolls at various points in time as local registrations are added and purged.

Eddie Greim, an attorney for Voter Reference Foundation, urged a federal judge to intervene and ensure voter rolls can be published online to provide direct accountability and allow people to vet the accuracy of most registration records submitted by others.

“The entire purpose of this is for voters to take control of their own records and become responsible,” Greim said during a hearing Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Albuquerque. New Mexico voters already can look up their own registration online by providing a date of birth.

New Mexico election regulators say the unprecedented efforts flout state statutes that limit the acquisition and sharing of voter registration rolls to governmental activities and political campaigns.

Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in December referred the group’s effort for possible prosecution to the state attorney general. No charges have been filed.

On Tuesday, an attorney representing the Secretary of State’s Office warned that many residents will be reluctant or unwilling to register to vote if they know that required personal information is distributed openly.

“People will simply not register if they think we will sell their data or make it available to the world,” said Olga Serafimova, an attorney for the state attorney general and secretary of state. “The system will unravel.”

She said election regulators in several states see flaws in the foundation’s methodology for highlighting “discrepancies” between voting tallies on Election Day and registration records that are updated continually.

Tuesday’s hearing included testimony from Voter Reference Foundation Executive Director Gina Swoboda, a former official with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, and the state elections director for New Mexico.

Federal District Court Judge James Browning peppered attorneys with questions and said the hearing would be extended to another day to allow more testimony. He took no other immediate action.

Voter Reference Foundation, created by former Republican Senate candidate Doug Truax of Illinois, removed New Mexico registration records from its website in March and filed a lawsuit arguing that the state’s restrictions on voter registration data violate free speech guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.