By: Joe Strupp
Public-access laws prove huge help to reporters covering recount saga
Florida’s sunshine laws — among the best public-access statutes in the country — have been key tools for reporters covering the ongoing presidential recount story there, according to veteran journalists. Many of those involved in the coverage said reporters are getting easier access to voting records, court proceedings, and public information than they would in most other states.
“Most states ought to be as open as Florida,” said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. “If this were taking place in the District of Columbia or Virginia, there would be a lot more unanswered questions.”
Bill Keller, managing editor of The New York Times, agreed. “Much of the harvesting of precinct-by-precinct voting information has come easier,” he said. “Elected officials at the county level understand that they need to provide this information.”
Florida’s sunshine laws include the Public Records Act and the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. The statutes, updated at various times in the past few decades, basically require that all government meetings, proceedings, and records be open to the public.
“Florida law is extremely broad in its definition of public records,” said Sandra Chance, a journalism professor at the University of Florida in Tallahassee. “It includes ballots.”
But not everyone believes that the statutes are so kind to journalists. David Kidwell, one of several Miami Herald reporters who have done stories examining voting trends and illegally cast ballots, said the state laws have blocked access to some information, requiring him to use other sources for data. “There are a lot of exemptions,” he said.
For example, Kidwell pointed to a provision in the state laws that allows certain political operatives, but not the press, to get information on which registered voters cast ballots. He also said reporters are not allowed to take notes when reviewing some voting records and added, “It can be difficult to get some things, depending on what you are after.”