Schools petition drive organizer files suit against Va. Department of Elections

Jeremy Lazarus | 7/11/2017, 8:54 a.m.
Paul Goldman is taking the state Department of Elections to court. The former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia ...
Paul Goldman

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

Paul Goldman is taking the state Department of Elections to court.

The former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia is accusing the state agency of using a state law to undermine efforts to get a school improvement initiative on the Richmond ballot.

On Wednesday, Mr. Goldman asked the Richmond Circuit Court to enjoin the department from using the law to block his petition campaign access to the department’s computerized lists of registered voters, which can provide information on a block-by-block basis.

Department officials and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office did not respond to Free Press requests for comment.

Mr. Goldman’s request for an injunction follows his filing of a lawsuit last Friday challenging the law’s constitutionality.

The law he cites allows incumbents, candidates, government officials, political action committees and nonprofit advocacy groups access to the election department’s information. But the law does not allow access to individuals engaged in political activity, such as leading a petition drive.

Mr. Goldman said the department offered to provide the information, but refused to tell him if he is eligible to receive it.

He declined to accept it and, instead, filed suit after the department’s acceptance form stated that he could be prosecuted and, if convicted, sentenced to up to 10 years in prison if he was later deemed ineligible.

“I shouldn’t have to face going to prison to gain access to this information,” he said.

Mr. Goldman said the voter information is vital to running an efficient drive to gather the signatures of 10,400 registered Richmond voters, the number required for the schools initiative to make the ballot.

He and the Richmond Crusade for Voters have collaborated on the drive. So far, nearly 7,000 signatures have been collected.

The campaign has until about Aug. 18 to gather and submit signatures to the Richmond Circuit Court. That would give the court time to check the signatures and issue an order for the initiative to be placed on the ballot, Mr. Goldman said.

If the petition drive is successful, the initiative would seek voter approval to change the City Charter to require Mayor Levar M. Stoney to come up with a fully financed plan to improve or replace the city’s aging school buildings or declare that such a plan could not be developed.

If the initiative passes, it would go to the General Assembly for final approval.

Mr. Goldman believes his suit will benefit from a 2010 Richmond Circuit Court decision that struck down a related law as unconstitutional.

In that decision, Judge Melvin R. Hughes issued his ruling on the law spelling out access to the elections department’s information on the voting history of registered voters. He issued his ruling after a nonprofit group challenged the department for denying access to voter history information so it could gather petitions.

In his ruling, Judge Hughes issued a permanent ban on the elections department and its board from “refusing to provide the said list upon request.”

In response to the ruling, the General Assembly amended the law to increase access to the lists by a wider range of groups as well as individuals. However, no similar changes were made to the separate law involving access to lists of registered voters that do not include voting histories.