Voting Groups Sue NC Over Federal Registration Requirement
A coalition of voting groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday accusing North Carolina of violating a voter registration law. The groups and the state had been in discussions about avoiding the lawsuit, but the two now disagree on how much progress is being made.
Federal law requires states to offer voter registration when people show up at the DMV or at public assistance agencies. (Think: food stamps or Medicaid.)
But Bob Hall of the group Democracy North Carolina says the state's own data paint a clear picture.
"The state agencies that are required to provide voter registration services are failing to do that systematically," he says. "Thousands and thousands of people that should be able to register are not getting that service."
The voting groups reached that conclusion in part by comparing registrations submitted through public assistance agencies by year. Over the past two years, they've plummeted. They were down nearly 70 percent last year compared to 2012.
The groups first threatened the state about this in May. The state Board of Elections worked on changes with other departments.
"There have been some steps at Health and Human Services," Hall says. "They have changed some of the training. There is some improvement there."
Hall says registration numbers through public agencies will be up this year but still well below the average from 2007 through 2012.
State Board of Elections General Counsel Josh Lawson says if you break it down further within each year, North Carolina's numbers are heading toward normal levels.
"We feel like we've got the problem defined, and we think that we're starting to address it because we are now starting to work our way back up to where you would expect them to be in an off or odd year election cycle," he says.
Lawson says it's unfortunate the voting groups are suing rather than working with the state more.
But the groups are even more frustrated with what they call a lack of progress at the DMV. Stuart Naifeh is an attorney with the group Demos.
"We had a lot of anecdotal evidence that people were not getting registered," he says. "When we did public records requests about provisional ballots that were cast by people who said they registered at the DMV, we found that it was a problem everywhere in the state."
That's backed up by testimony this past summer in a separate federal lawsuit over North Carolina's election overhaul.
Lawson of the state Board of Elections says the problem is not as widespread as those claims make it seem. Even so, the DMV made a change recently so that people will have to sign a form making clear they did – or did not – register to vote.
"It became important both to us and to DMV to have something concrete, so that you would have a paper trail with some kind of signature indicating what the voter actually asked to do," he says.
The DMV and the state health department declined our interview requests. The federal lawsuit will play out in the middle district of North Carolina.