GREENSBORO, N.C. – Widespread disenfranchisement and a steep decline in voter registration activity have led a coalition of civic organizations and voters to file a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for violation of an important federal voting rights law.
Today, attorneys for Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) and three individual North Carolina citizens filed suit against the state officials responsible for elections, public assistance programs and motor vehicle services for failing to provide federally mandated voter registration opportunities, in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), in the U.S. District Court Middle District of North Carolina.
The NVRA, commonly referred to as the “Motor Voter” law, is aimed at increasing voting opportunities for eligible citizens by making voter registration accessible at the government locations people visit most frequently. The NVRA requires that public assistance agencies—like the agencies that run WIC, TANF, and Medicaid—and motor vehicle offices provide specific voter registration services to individuals whenever they apply for or renew public assistance benefits, driver’s licenses, or state-issued identification cards, as well as when they report a change of address to the relevant state agency.
“Simply stated, this lawsuit is about vindicating the right of every North Carolinian who interacts with a public assistance office or the Division of Motor Vehicles to register to vote with the confidence that when she goes to the polls, she will be able to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted,” said Matthew M. D’Amore, partner at Morrison and Foerster LLP, which, along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Dēmos, Project Vote and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), are representing the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis.
Earlier this year, the plaintiffs sent letters to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) notifying them that they were violating the NVRA, and urging them to fix the problems and bring the state into compliance with the law. According to the plaintiffs, North Carolina failed to remedy its NVRA violations in response to the letters.
“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.”
State data show a steep decline, beginning in 2012, in the number of voter registration applications originating from public assistance agencies, far exceeding any change in the public assistance caseload.
“North Carolina’s public assistance agencies are routinely failing to provide NVRA-mandated voter registration services,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Attorney at Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Extensive interviews conducted at public assistance offices in 11 counties found rampant lapses in compliance with the law, lapses that are having a huge impact on North Carolina voters.”
“The recent drop in agency-based voter registration applications cannot be explained by voter apathy or a dearth of competitive elections,” said Pat McCoy, Executive Director of Action NC. “In 2014 there were some highly competitive elections in North Carolina and, because the state has not been meeting its voter registration obligations, organizations like ours have had to pick up the slack and carry on the work that is and should be the state’s responsibility, under the NVRA.”
“The NVRA requires that public assistance agencies provide voter registration services in order to help low-income individuals and persons with disabilities—folks who are less likely to come into contact with motor vehicle agencies—get registered and participate in the American political process,” said Melvin Montford, Executive Director of the North Carolina APRI.
North Carolina is also failing to place many voters on the rolls when they attempt to register at DMV offices. The state is similarly failing to offer required voter registration services to individuals who renew their driver’s licenses or non-driver identification cards through the mail or on the DMV website.
“A significant number of individuals across North Carolina—including our client Sherry Holverson— were forced to vote provisionally in the most recent election, despite having requested to register or update their registration through the North Carolina DMV,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. “For example, over 150 individuals in Mecklenburg County alone were unable to cast a regular ballot in the 2014 General Election because of apparent DMV errors in processing their voter registrations.”
Ms. Holverson, one of the individual plaintiffs in this case, is a qualified North Carolina voter who changed her registration information at a DMV office after moving from one county to another in 2014. When Ms. Holverson went to cast a ballot in the 2014 General Election, she was told that her name was not on the registration rolls and was given a provisional ballot. As a result, Ms. Holverson was disenfranchised because her provisional ballot was not counted due to DMV record-keeping errors.
“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 Dēmos. “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.”
This is not the first time North Carolina has had to bring its voter registration procedures into compliance with the law. In 2006, voting rights advocates brought compliance problems at public assistance agencies to the attention of the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections, and cooperatively developed a plan that, until 2011, dramatically improved the state’s compliance with its voter registration obligations at public assistance offices. See Dēmos, Expanding Voter Registration for Low-Income Citizens: How North Carolina is Realizing the Promise of the National Voter Registration Act, April 2008.
According to today’s complaint, “[t]his history shows that compliance with the NVRA is achievable and results in a substantial increase in public assistance voter applications. The survey data and voter registration data available today demonstrate that the [state is] no longer in compliance, however, and that injunctive relief to remedy these violations is required.”
“The NVRA plays an essential role in both protecting and promoting the fundamental right to vote,” said Dorian Spence, associate counsel at Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We look forward to securing an expeditious remedy to North Carolina’s violations of the NVRA and to seeing a more robust democratic process in North Carolina.”
The defendants in the lawsuit, all named in their official capacities, are Kim Strach, the Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBOE); Rick Brajer, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who oversees the operations of the state’s public assistance agencies; Kelly Thomas, Commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles; and Nick Tennyson, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, who together oversee the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.
The Morrison & Foerster team includes Matthew M. D’Amore, Steven M. Kaufmann, Kirk A. Sigmon, Josh R. Stein, and Katherine E. Mateo.
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