New Hampshire’s Right to know Law, often referred to as 91-a, prohibits state and local officials from hiding ‘public’ documents. And while some parts of the bureaucratic machine are happy to give you what you request in a timely and even pleasant manner, others who can’t (or don’t want) be bothered by you pesky citizens will toss out responses to your queries that they think will send you packing.
Are they just too busy doing the state’s business to be interrupted by curious taxpayers with troublesome queries? Are they ignorant of the statutes that define and limit both the kinds of documents to which you are entitled access and the manner in which you may access them? Will they purposefully mislead to prevent you from seeing public documents?
A little of each, or maybe all of the above, it hardly matters–the end result is the same; they are engaging in information intimidation and breaking the law, most without fear of consequence.
Last week we identified one such effort at information intimidation right here on the pages of GraniteGrok. A local clerk told a citizen seeking a voter checklist that it would cost $300.00. We hear tell of another clerk who suggested something similar when they noted that getting the list for a town the size of Nashua could cost you over $240.00. They were not a clerk in Nashua, but the misdirection, while not directly dishonest, suggested that their own voter checklist would not necessarily be cheap and were you sure you wanted to bother them with figuring it out?
For the record, while towns can charge a document fee of 25.00 for the first 2500 names and then a fee for each 1000 names after, the 57,000 name checklist in Nashua runs in the neighborhood of $38.00 not $240.00. The 5000 plus list in Barrington, NH (note above) would cost about $26. And it is worth asking why it should cost anything at all when some towns keep a link to the most updated version on the town Web site…for free.
One more point for the record; this is not the only form of information intimidation, and the act is not limited to local government. The prolific abuse of the (ambiguous?) term “public” is epidemic at ever level of government and even the Secretary of State’s office has no problem engaging in the same tactics.
Today’s lesson comes to us courtesy of absentee ballots. Those are the things that out of state college students matriculating in New Hampshire are forbidden from using to vote in their own home state, but that still manage to turn up here from people who find themselves outside the state come election day. New Hampshire receives these from all over, from people who (presumably) live here, who want their vote to count, not that it could with all the out of staters invalidating their votes by voting here instead.
By law, it is required that we maintain a list of people who have requested absentee ballots. Regardless of what information is required to obtain one, the end result is a list of names and addresses, no different than the voter checklist of registered voters, to which by law you are entitled access. But if you call the New Hampshire Secretary of states office, or even any local supervisor of the checklist, you might find yourself on the receiving end of another misleading bit of information intimidation.
“I’m sorry, but that is not covered by 91-a. You do not have a right to know that.”
The pat response is that 91-a does not allow you access to the personal information tied to (voter registration or) the request for an absentee ballot. And on its face that is true. You are not entitled to that personal information, but that is not what you are asking for. You are asking for the list that state law requires they keep for anyone who voted by absentee ballot, the one no different than the voter checklist you are also permitted access to by 91-a. And unless I’m mistaken, you have a right to know who those people are, and you have a right to access the list.