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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Lamone

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 8, 2019

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC. Plaintiff,
v.
LINDA LAMONE, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ellen Lipton Hollander United States District Judge

         This litigation concerns an organization's request under state and federal law for access to the voter registration list for Montgomery County, Maryland.

         Plaintiff Judicial Watch, Inc. (“Judicial Watch”) has sued a host of defendants, in their official capacities, including Linda Lamone, the Maryland Administrator of Elections, to compel compliance with Section 8(i)(1) of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“NVRA” or the “Act”), codified, as amended, at 52 U.S.C. § 20507(i)(1). See ECF 1 (“Complaint”). The remaining defendants include David McManus, Jr., the Chairman of the Maryland State Board of Elections (“SBE”); Patrick Hogan, the Vice-Chairman of the SBE; Jared DeMarinis, the Public Information Act Officer and Director of the Division of Candidacy and Campaign Finance for SBE; and SBE Members Michael Cogan, Kelley Howells, and Gloria Lawlah (collectively, the “State Defendants”). Id.[1]

         In addition, plaintiff sued James Shalleck, the President of the Montgomery County Board of Elections (“MCBE”); Nahid Khozeimeh, the Vice-President of the MCBE; Mary Ann Keeffe, the Secretary of the MCBE; Alexander Vincent and David Naimon, MCBE Members; and Jacqueline Phillips, an MCBE Substitute Member (collectively, the “County Defendants”). Id. However, on June 4, 2018, the Court granted the County Defendants' motion to dismiss (ECF 2), thereby dismissing them from the case. ECF 34; ECF 35.

         Following discovery, plaintiff moved for summary judgment (ECF 43), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 43-1) (collectively, the “Motion”) and exhibits. ECF 43-2 to ECF 43-6. The defendants filed a cross motion for summary judgment (ECF 49), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 49-1) (collectively, the “Cross Motion”) and exhibits. ECF 49-3 to ECF 49-10. Plaintiff filed an opposition to the Cross Motion, along with four additional exhibits. See ECF 52-1 through ECF 52-4. Defendants replied (ECF 53) and submitted an additional exhibit. See ECF 53-1.

         No hearing is necessary to resolve the motions. See Local Rules 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I shall GRANT the Motion (ECF 43) in part and DENY it in part, and I shall DENY the Cross-Motion (ECF 49).

         I. Factual Background

         A.

         Judicial Watch describes itself as a “not-for-profit, educational organization” that is dedicated to “promot[ing] transparency, integrity, and accountability in government.” ECF 1, ¶ 5. According to Judicial Watch, it “regularly requests records from state and local governments pursuant to Section 8(i) of the NVRA, and state open-records laws . . . .” Id. And, it “analyzes all responses and disseminates both its findings and the requested records to the American public to inform it about ‘what the government is up to.'” Id. (citation omitted).

         On April 11, 2017, Thomas Fitton, President of Judicial Watch, sent an email to Lamone, as well as the officers and members of both the SBE and the MCBE. ECF 1, ¶ 11. The email included a letter to McManus dated April 11, 2017. See ECF 1-1 (“Notice Letter”). Hogan, Cogan, Howells, Lawlah, Lamone, Shalleck, Khozeimeh, Keefe, Vincent, Naimon, Popper, and Nikki Charlson, the Deputy State Administrator of the SBE, were copied on the Notice Letter. ECF 1-1 at 7.[2] The Notice Letter, which is appended to the suit (ECF 1-1), was also sent by certified mail to the SBE and the MCBE. ECF 1, ¶ 11.

         The Notice Letter stated, in part, ECF 1-1 at 1-7 (emphasis added):

Dear Chairman McManus:
We write to bring your attention to violations of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”) in Montgomery County, Maryland. From public records obtained, Montgomery County has more total registered voters than adult citizens over the age of 18 as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011-2015 American Community Survey. This is strong circumstantial evidence that Montgomery County is not conducting reasonable voter registration record maintenance as mandated under the NVRA.
This letter serves as statutory notice that Judicial Watch will bring a lawsuit against your office if you do not take specific actions to correct these violations of Section 8 within 90 days. In addition, by this letter we are asking you to produce certain records to us which you are required to make available under Section 8(i) of the NVRA.
You are receiving this letter because you are the designated chief state election official under the NVRA.
In order to avoid litigation, we hope you will promptly initiate efforts to comply with Section 8 so that no lawsuit will be necessary. We ask you to please respond to this letter in writing no later than 45 days from today informing us of the compliance steps you are taking. Specifically, we ask you to: (1) conduct or implement a systematic, uniform, nondiscriminatory program to remove from the list of eligible voters the names of persons who have become ineligible to vote by reason of a change in residence; and (2) conduct or implement additional routine measures to remove from the list of eligible voters the names of persons who have become ineligible to vote by reason of death, change in residence, or a disqualifying criminal conviction, and [(3)]to remove noncitizens who have registered to vote unlawfully.
[P]ursuant to your obligations under the NVRA, please make available to us all pertinent records concerning “the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency” of Maryland's official eligible voter lists during the past 2 years. Please include these records with your response to this letter. These records should include, but are not limited to:
1. Copies of the most recent voter registration database from Montgomery County, Maryland, including fields indicating name, date of birth, home address, most recent voter activity, and active or inactive status.
2. Copies of all email or other communications internal to the office of the Maryland State Board of Elections, including any of its divisions, bureaus, offices, third party agents, or contractors, (hereinafter, collectively “State Board of Elections”) relating to the maintenance of accurate and current voter rolls.
3. Copies of all email or other communications between the State Board of Elections and all Maryland County Voter Registration Officials concerning:
a. Instructions to the counties concerning their general list maintenance practices and obligations;
b. Instructions to the counties for the removal of specific noncitizens and deceased, relocated, or convicted persons identified by the State Board of Elections; and
c. Notices to the counties concerning any failure to comply with their voter list maintenance obligations under Maryland's program.
4. Copies of all email or other communications between the State Board of Elections and the Maryland State Department of Health, the Maryland State Department of Corrections, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, and the Maryland State Judiciary concerning obtaining information about deceased, relocated, convicted, or noncitizen registered voters for the purpose of updating Maryland's voter registration lists.
5. Copies of all email or other communications between the State Board of Elections and the U.S. Attorney(s) for Maryland, the U.S. District Court for Maryland, the U.S. Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concerning the National Change of Address database, the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database, or any other means of obtaining information about deceased, relocated, convicted, or noncitizen registered voters for the purpose of updating Maryland's voter registration lists.
6. Copies of all email or other communications between the State Board of Elections and the Interstate Voter Registration Cross-Check Program, the Electronic Registration Information Center, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, and any other U.S. State concerning obtaining information about deceased or relocated registered voters for the purpose of updating Maryland's voter registration lists. . . .

         The SBE's Nikki Charlson sent an email to Judicial Watch on May 26, 2017, indicating that the SBE had received the Notice Letter. ECF 1, ¶ 18. Further, she stated that the SBE would issue a response to Judicial Watch, and that the SBE would provide Judicial Watch with the “requested documents next week.” Id.[3]

         Judicial Watch received a letter from Lamone on June 5, 2017. Id. ¶ 19; ECF 19-2.[4]Lamone stated, inter alia, that Maryland's voter list maintenance program complies with the NVRA, that the SBE was compiling “responsive” documents, and that the SBE would provide those documents to Judicial Watch “‘shortly.'” ECF 1, ¶¶ 19-20; ECF 19-2.

         By email dated July 7, 2017 (ECF 1-2), DeMarinis informed plaintiff, id.: “The documents that you requested from your April 11, 2017 letter are ready for review. However, . . . the request for the Montgomery County voter registration list was not made in accordance with Election Law Article 3-506. Therefore, it will not be processed.” ECF 1, ¶¶ 21-22; see Md. Code (2017 Repl., 2018 Supp.), § 3-506(a) of the Election Law Article (“E.L.”) (stating that upon request “a list of registered voters shall be provided to a Maryland registered voter”) (emphasis added).

         On July 11, 2017, Popper, as counsel for plaintiff, spoke by telephone with DeMarinis. ECF 1, ¶ 24. During that call, Popper noted that Judicial Watch is organized under D.C. law and therefore it could not be “a Maryland registered voter, ” as required by E.L. § 3-506(a)(1). ECF 1, ¶ 24. As a result, plaintiff could not obtain the “requested voter list.” Id. DeMarinis confirmed that the Maryland Attorney General's office had so indicated. Id.

         As indicated, in Judicial Watch's Notice Letter, plaintiff requested “[c]opies of the most recent voter registration database.” ECF 1-1 at 5. Plaintiff has since clarified that it is seeking the most recent voter registration “list” for Montgomery County, rather than the database. ECF 52 at 6 (“In light of what Plaintiff learned in discovery, it probably would have been more accurate in the April 2017 notice letter to request the most recent voter registration ‘list' rather than ‘database.'”). As defendants put it, “the record is now clear that the subject matter of this case has only ever been the Voter List (and not a Montgomery County database)[.]” ECF 49-1 at 26.

         B.

         Maryland maintains and manages its voter registrations through MDVOTERS (the “Database”), a statewide database containing voter registration records for Maryland elections. See ECF 43-3 (Deposition of Mary Cramer Wagner) at 6, p. 26:17-21; ECF 43-4 (Deposition of Janet Smith) at 13, p. 71:11-21. Each voter registration is represented in MDVOTERS by a separate entry, and each entry is composed of three parts: voter data, images of transaction source documents, and an activity log.

         The voter data consists of the voter's personal information, as well as information on the voter's registration status. The information about the voter is organized into data fields or categories, each containing one piece of information. The fields in MDVOTERS include name, date of birth, and address. See ECF 43-4 at 13, p. 71:11-14; ECF 49-8 (Decl. of Mary Cramer Wagner), ¶¶ 16-17. Each entry also includes fields for “the individual's current registration status, the reason for the most recent change in status, and the source of the change[.]” ECF 49-8, ¶ 7. Because each voter registration contains many of the same fields, an official can use the fields to search, sort, filter, or otherwise access the data concerning the voters. Therefore, an official could produce a list of Maryland voters in Montgomery County. See ECF 49-1 at 38.

         Mary Cramer Wagner, the SBE's Director of the Voter Registration and Petition Division, explained in her Declaration that each registration contains images of transaction source documents, “scanned documents reflecting all voter registration transactions and certain other transactions in the individual's history.” ECF 49-8, ¶ 7. She stated, id. ¶ 8: “When a person's record is updated as a result of a voter registration or other transaction, any document evidencing that transaction (e.g., voter registration application), is scanned into the database and associated with that record.” These documents are used to verify the personal information used to populate or update the voter data in the voter registration entry. See Id. ¶¶ 16-17.

         A separate activity log is maintained for each voter. The activity log tracks changes to the voter's data, such as changes in voter registration. ECF 43-4 at 13, pp. 70:13-71:3.

         Although the State Board of Elections maintains MDVOTERS, local boards of elections process most voter registration transactions on a record-by-record basis within the Database. See ECF 43-3 at 5, pp. 16:20-17:13; id. at 12-13, pp. 73:14-74:2. To assist the local boards, the SBE provides training regarding proper list maintenance procedures, circulates biweekly newsletters containing registration-related information and updates, and publishes guidance documents directing election officials on how to process records that present certain scenarios. See ECF 49-6 (Deposition of Janet Smith), at 10:11-12:5; ECF 49-8, ¶ 15.

         Local boards of election also conduct audits of other local boards' voter registration transactions. ECF 49-9 (Decl. of Janet Smith), ¶ 6. To audit voter registration transactions, a local election official pulls a subset of individual voter registrations from the Database through a search query. ECF 49-6 at 29:17-33:11. The local election official then checks each transaction against the scanned source document to ensure that it was processed properly. See ECF 49-9, ¶ 4. State officials, such as Maryland's Voter Registration Manager of Audits, Janet Smith, also conduct audits of voter registration transactions. See ECF 43-4 at 28:17-31:13; ECF 49-9, ¶ 3.

         II. Standard of Review

         Both parties have moved for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Rule 56(a) provides, in part: “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); see also Iraq Middle Mkt. Dev. Found. v. Harmoosh, 848 F.3d 235, 238 (4th Cir. 2017) (“A court can grant summary judgment only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the case presents no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party demonstrates entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.”). The nonmoving party must demonstrate that there are disputes of material fact so as to preclude the award of summary judgment as a matter of law. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-86 (1986).

         The Supreme Court has clarified that not every factual dispute will defeat the motion. “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. at 248. There is a genuine issue as to material fact “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.; see Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., 841 F.3d 199, 204 (4th Cir. 2016); Raynor v. Pugh, 817 F.3d 123, 130 (4th Cir. 2016); Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleadings,' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (alteration in Bouchat) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1042 (2004); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24. Moreover, in resolving a summary judgment motion, a court must view all of the facts, including reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd., 475 U.S. at 587; accord Hannah P. v. Coats, 916 F.3d 327, 336 (4th Cir. 2019); Roland v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Servs., 850 F.3d 625, 628 (4th Cir. 2017); FDIC v. Cashion, 720 F.3d 169, 173 (4th Cir. 2013). However, summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as ...


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