Politics & Government

NC groups accuse state of violating ‘Motor Voter Law’

In North Carolina, where several legal challenges to elections law are pending in the courts, three organizations added another to the mix on Tuesday with contentions that state motor vehicle offices and public assistance agencies are failing to provide federally mandated voter registration opportunities.

On Tuesday, attorneys for Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and three North Carolina residents sued officials at the State Board of Elections, Division of Motor Vehicles and Department of Health and Human Services.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Greensboro, in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina.

The contention is that since 2012 in North Carolina, after Republicans had control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s office, there has been a sharp decline in the number of voter registration applications from driver’s license offices and state agencies that run food stamp, Medicaid and temporary assistance programs.

The National Voter Registration Act, or the “Motor Voter Law” as it is commonly known, was adopted in 1993 to make voting more accessible by providing voter registration opportunities when people apply for or renew driver’s licenses and apply for public assistance.

The lawsuit states that in 2013 and 2014, the number of voter registration applications from North Carolina public assistance agencies dropped by more than 56 percent. There was a drop in public assistance applications during that period, but that was only 13.8 percent, the challengers pointed out.

In 2012, according to a chart in the lawsuit, 41,162 voter registration applications came to elections offices in North Carolina from public assistance agencies. That number was similar to 2008, when the presidential elections brought many out to vote, and the peak in 2011, when 42,988 voter registration applications came from public assistance agencies.

In 2013, that number dropped to 18,758. In 2014, it dropped further to 13,340.

Kimberly Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, released a statement Tuesday, saying that she was surprised by the lawsuit and that she has been working with the state agencies to address the concerns of the plaintiffs.

Earlier this year, the plaintiffs sent letters to the State Board of Elections, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the state Division of Motor Vehicles notifying them of their concerns.

“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,” Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said in a statement. “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.”

Strach contended that the decline in applications from public service agencies could be attributed to a coding problem. Voter registration applications are coded, she said, and instead of using those for public service agencies, some of the workers were downloading applications from the Board of Elections website, which has a different code on it.

“Our agency took swift action to address concerns over voter registration at public service providers,” Strach said.

This is not the first time North Carolina has faced complaints for not following through with the federal Motor Voter Law.

In 2006, voting rights advocates raised the issue with Gary Bartlett, the state elections director at the time. Bartlett worked with the group to develop a plan to register more voters.

That plan had an immediate impact. Voter registration applications from public assistance agencies swelled from 9,001 in 2006 to 33,101 in 2007.

The plaintiffs contend that many voters who attempted to register to vote at driver’s license offices were not placed on voter rolls. They contend that anyone who renews a license or non-driver ID through the mail or online are not offered voter registration forms.

“We had hoped that with Gov. Pat McCrory’s emphasis on improving customer service at the DMV, he would direct his agencies to correct their systematic failure to provide the registration services required by law,” Hall said in a statement.

Strach said her office hopes to have that system fixed by January.

Graham Wilson, McCrory’s press secretary, issued a statement late Tuesday highlighting efforts mentioned by Strach. “These left wing and labor advocacy groups are ignoring the facts regarding voter registration efforts made by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Division of Motor Vehicles and the State Board of Elections.”

Hall, whose organization is nonpartisan and has filed complaints about Democrats and Republicans, countered that the facts are that problems still exist, and he highlighted the DMV website issues that won’t be fixed until early next year.

“They’re ignoring the fact of the problem,” Hall said.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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