POLITICS

Civil Rights Groups Sue North Carolina Over Voter Registration

Registration numbers dropped sharply from 2012 to 2014.

A coalition of civil rights groups sued North Carolina on Tuesday, alleging that the state is violating a federal law regarding voter registration. 

The National Voter Registration Act, signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton and commonly referred to as the "motor voter" law, requires state motor vehicle agencies to provide voter registration services whenever a person applies for, renews or changes his or her address on a driver’s license or government-issued identification card. It also requires public assistance agencies, disability and military recruiting offices to facilitate voter registration.

In June, the same groups -- Demos, Project Vote, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Democracy North Carolina and others -- put North Carolina on notice, warning the state that they would sue if it failed to fully comply with the NVRA. The groups pointed out that the number of voter registrations originating from public assistance agencies dropped precipitously from 2011 to 2014 and that applicants at those agencies were not receiving verbal or written opportunities to register to vote. 

A chart in the lawsuit shows that in 2012, 41,162 voter registration applications came to state elections offices in North Carolina from public assistance agencies. That number was similar to numbers ahead of the 2008 presidential election and the peak in 2011, when 42,988 voter registration applications came from public assistance agencies. Yet that number dropped to 18,758 in 2013 and 13,340 in 2014. 

On Tuesday, the groups sued in federal court, saying the state hadn't adequately addressed those issues.

“We had hoped that we could work cooperatively with the State to ensure that individuals were being provided the voter registration services federal law requires,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. “Unfortunately, these North Carolina agencies have dragged their feet on fixing the problems we identified in our letters, and it has become clear that federal litigation is necessary to bring North Carolina into compliance with the NVRA.”

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Sherry Holverson, changed her registration information at a DMV office after moving from one county to another in 2014 but was was told that her name was not on the registration rolls when she went to vote in the general election. She was given a provisional ballot that was not counted. 

“Our clients did everything right: they visited the DMV before the deadline for registering to vote; they indicated that they wanted to register to vote or update their voter information; and they left the DMV having been told that they would be registered to vote,” said Stuart C. Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. “But when they showed up to vote in the 2014 election, their names were not on the list of registered voters. Because of the DMV’s violations of the law, these North Carolina citizens were deprived of their right to vote.”  

The state Board of Elections (SBOE) said Tuesday that it was surprised it was being sued, arguing that it had worked to correct the registration issues the groups highlighted. The agency said that registration activity at public assistance agencies is now comparable to levels in prior odd-year cycles. It attributed the drop in submitted registration forms to coding problems; an agency review found that local offices were printing registration forms from the SBOE website, rather than using forms coded for public assistance agencies. 

“Our agency took swift action to address concerns over voter registration at public service providers,” Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach said in a statement. “We have been impressed by the commitment of DMV and [the state Department of Health and Human Services] to ensure registration opportunities are available to those they serve.”

One of the civil rights groups' complaints is that the state isn't automatically updating voter registration information for North Carolinians who update their address, as the NVRA requires. The state agencies said they are finalizing changes to the DMV's online change of address portal, which is set to launch in January, to comply with the law. 

“DMV customers updating their address online will also be able to submit updated voter registration information to our agency,” Strach said. “The state’s response has been so substantial, we were surprised Democracy NC chose to file a lawsuit.”

The groups suing say these changes aren't good enough. 

"The state had every opportunity for six months to come forth and demonstrate compliance, or efforts it was making to come into compliance," Catherine Flanagan, senior counsel at Project Vote, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. 

Flanagan argued that there are "numerous concerns" raised in the groups' complaint that North Carolina overlooked in its response to the suit.  

"The [SBOE]'s response regarding DHHS does not address the serious deficiencies in its office procedures that we point to in our complaint," she said. "The response also does not address the hundreds if not thousands of North Carolinians who every election day discover that they’re not on the roll even though they thought they registered at DMV — our plaintiffs are examples of those individuals." 

Voter registration has been a charged issue in North Carolina since Republicans in the state legislature pushed through a package of voting restrictions in 2013. The law, which the state and civil rights groups are fighting over in the courts, eliminated same-day registration, reduced the state’s early voting period by a week, eliminated the counting of ballots cast by voters out of their home precinct and ended preregistration for 16 and 17-year olds. Republican lawmakers also passed a government-issued photo ID requirement to vote, which they later modified just before it was set to be challenged in court. 

Complaints about state voter registration processes are relatively common: TexasCalifornia and Alabama have all been accused of being non-compliant with the NVRA within the last year. In 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration called the NVRA "the election statute most often ignored" and said the law "is not working as intended." 

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