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2023 Public Records Legislative Changes — School and Election Records

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As we tend to see every year, the state legislature made several changes to the Public Records Act (PRA) and other statutes that impact local government public records during the 2023 Regular Legislative Session. I covered the new PRA exemption to protect employee safety last week. In this blog, I am going to review the changes that impact school districts and county election officials.

Election Records — SB 5459

In SB 5459, the legislature moved the existing election security exemptions originally located in RCW 42.56.420 to its own section in RCW 42.56.425. The legislature also expanded the exemption to protect information about a private entity’s infrastructure submitted to elections officials that describes the systems, software, and networks that support the election process and to explicitly exempt the actual voted ballots, not just the outside ballot return envelopes. This new exemption for voted ballots codifies the 2015 holding in White v. Skagit County that the state constitution and other statutes protect the secrecy of voted ballots.

Most helpful for county election officials, the new section contains a paragraph that any requests for records from the statewide voter registration database be directed to and fulfilled by the Washington Secretary of State, even though county officials have access to the database. That said, local records officers are still required to respond to a request within five business days, as required in RCW 42.56.520, by denying the request and directing the requestor to submit their request to the secretary of state.

School District Records — SSB 5127

One challenge that many school districts faced involved protecting the privacy of students when their personal information appeared in “nonstudent records.” The previous version of RCW 42.56.230 only exempted the personal information “in any files maintained for students in public schools.” Since RCW 42.56.030 requires any exemptions to be “narrowly construed,” many districts struggled with protecting the privacy of students when their information appeared in records that were not specifically “maintained” or created for that student especially in email correspondence.

With SSB 5127, the legislature addressed those concerns by ensuring that:

[S]chool districts understand that they have the ability to protect a student’s privacy and redact personal information related to a student regardless of the type of record that the information is found in.

With the amendment, RCW 42.56.230(2)(a)(iii) exempts the personal information of current and former students “in any records pertaining to the student, including correspondence.” I have already heard from school districts’ records staff that this new exemption has made it much easier to protect a student’s privacy since they no longer need to determine whether or not a record is “maintained” for a student.

School District Meetings — HB 1210

A big change effective June 30, 2024, especially for smaller districts, requires school district board meetings to be audio recorded and made available to the public — HB 1210 amending RCW 42.30.035. While this technically changes the Open Public Meeting Act (OPMA), the bill also amends the PRA to require that a request for a recording must identify the date or range of dates for a recording (RCW 42.56.080). Records staff are only required to search recordings by date and are not required to search recordings by any other criteria such as keywords or speakers.

Resources

There were many other legislative changes that impact only specific state agencies or narrow types of records. The Office of the Code Revisor annually updates a list of public disclosure exemptions contained in state statutes. That list is available on the Sunshine Committee webpage maintained by the Attorney General’s Office. I recommend bookmarking and regularly searching that helpful list.

Also, take a look at the recording of our Legislative Update on 2023 Public Records Bills webinar, which was presented with Assistant Attorney General Morgan Damerow, Open Government Ombuds. You can access this free recording at our On-Demand Webinars webpage by searching under the “Open Government” listings.



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About Sarah Doar

Sarah Doar joined MRSC in September 2018.

Most recently, she served as a Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Island County. At Island County, Sarah advised on many aspects of government business, including compliance with public record and opening meeting laws. She also defended the County in Growth Management Act and Land Use litigation. Prior to moving to Washington, Sarah practiced land use, environmental, and appellate law in Florida for over eight years.

Sarah holds a B.A. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land use law from Florida State University College of Law.

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