While public document fees are not unreasonable for the purpose of covering the cost of the materials or labor required to meet a request, at what point do these sums become an obstacle for the average citizen? When does the sum begin to limit access otherwise protected by law?
In the case of voter checklists the state defines the allowable (optional) fee of $25.00 for the first 2500 names and an additional 0.50 cents per 1000 names after that. Using this formula a city the city of Nashua would charge less than $40.00 for their voter checklist, a sum that is already beginning to exceed what most people might be willing to part with for public documents, but not unreasonable in most cases where the list is already in electronic form and available with a click of a mouse.
In such circumstances where the documents are going to be converted into electronic form anyway (like for sharing with the Secretary of State), asking for no more than a few dollars for the entire list would make it accessible to anyone at any income level. Some towns already acknowledge this need for accessibility and provide access to their entire voter checklist for free, even providing a link online that is updated when the list is.
So why would the city of Franklin, New Hampshire ask for $75.00 for a copy of their city voter checklist?
There are three wards in the city of Franklin, and when a local resident offered request a copy of the city voter checklist from the clerks office for us, we said great! Thanks. But when they asked for it the clerk politely informed our contact that they could have to pay $25.00 per ward. Their first question to us was a legitimate one…do we expect them to pay $75.00 for a checklist, and possibly another $75.00 for the updated one?
My answer to that is no. That’s insane. It’s another case of highway robbery and it is limiting access to public documents to people who could afford them. Talk about putting paid to the lie that government can and should exist to make everything accessible to everyone. The Franklin clerk wants $75.00 for the complete checklist for a city of about 8500 people, many of whom make less than both the state and national average annual income. So that checklist…it’s not a public document anymore. It is a private document whose access is limited to people or organizations of means.
How about we fix that?
Using the secretary of states formula our Franklin citizen should only have to pay $29.10 at the most if every single person living in Franklin voted, but I think we know that is not the case so the sum should be less than that.
Given the confusion in Barrington where the clerks office asked for $300.00 dollars for a checklist, or someone suggesting that Nashua’s list would be $240.00, I think it is time to address the problem statewide. We need to clarify the law to ensure that public documents are accessible to everyone regardless of income level.
But Franklin, and every other clerks office, could take their own initiative (starting on Monday after the long weekend perhaps) and institute their own policy. A policy that makes public documents like checklists, which are going to be converted into electronic form regardless of whether anyone ever comes to ask for a copy, if not free then as affordable as possible. Anything else is simply using loopholes to discourage citizens from requesting documents they know they cannot afford, and sending a message that other documents they might want access to could cost even more.
That is not what Right to know is about and this needs to be fixed.