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Politics
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GOP-Backed Bill Targets Non-Citizens On NC Voter Rolls. Critics Say It'll Do More Harm Than Good

State Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett, Johnston, Lee), one of the primary sponsors of a bill aimed at purging North Carolina voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens.
State Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett, Johnston, Lee), one of the primary sponsors of a bill aimed at purging North Carolina voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens.
State Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett, Johnston, Lee), one of the primary sponsors of a bill aimed at purging North Carolina voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
State Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett, Johnston, Lee), one of the primary sponsors of a bill aimed at purging North Carolina voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens.

A bill awaiting the governor's signature or veto aims to rid North Carolina voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens. But critics see it as a blatant attempt at voter suppression targeting a minority community.

Voter list maintenance, as the process is called, already takes place on a regular basis.

"We update our rolls every Saturday," said North Carolina State Board of Elections Spokesman Pat Gannon.

In the past month, according to Gannon, a little more than 28,000 new registrants were added to North Carolina's voter rolls and many others were dropped from the list because of deaths, felony convictions, and moving out of state.

"You can see it's tens of thousands of people in the course of a month statewide that are either added or removed from the voter rolls, so it's quite a process," he said.

The list maintenance process involves the flow of information to and from multiple agencies. The state health department provides state elections board staff with death notices on a monthly basis, information which is then passed on to county elections boards. And every month, the state elections board uses Department of Public Safety information to notify county boards of residents who've been convicted of felonies.

"I want everybody that legally can to vote," said state Sen. Jim Burgin, a Republican who represents Harnett, Johnston and Lee counties and one of the bill's primary sponsors. "I wish more people would turn out to vote. So, I think this is a tool that we'll use to make sure the right people are voting."

The new law would add another layer of bureaucracy to the process by requiring court clerks to provide the state elections boards with the names of people disqualified from jury duty because they're not U.S. citizens.

"Is this perfect? No. Is this is a tool to get us started? Yes," said Burgin.

Critics say it's not just an imperfect bill, but an unnecessary one. Democrats in the state House and Senate sounded a common refrain in floor debate last week: that the bill "is a solution in search of a problem."

"It does not exist," said Sen. Erica Smith, who's running an underdog campaign to be the Democratic nominee in next year's U.S. Senate race. "If we want to really talk about threats to our free and fair elections we need to look at the tampering from foreign entities." 

A 2016 post-election audit by the state elections board found that out of the record 4.8 million North Carolina voters who turned out to cast ballots, just 41 were found to be non-U.S. citizens who had legal residency status.

Additionally, the audit, which relied on information from the Department of Motor Vehicles and a Department of Homeland Security database, turned up 34 people who were able to show they were, in fact, U.S. citizens.

Opponents of the bill worry the legislation will generate false positives and disenfranchise eligible voters.

"The main focus of people who it's going to affect is going to be people who are legal permanent residents who have now gained their U.S. citizenship status," said Raul Pinto, an immigrants' rights advocate and senior staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center.

Raul Pinto, an immigrants' rights advocate and senior staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center.
Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC
Raul Pinto, an immigrants' rights advocate and senior staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center.

Pinto said he worries forcing newly-naturalized citizens targeted by the measure to prove their citizenship status could have a chilling effect on their exercise of a basic right.

"You can see how an individual who may not be from this country, and just became a U.S. citizen, may not necessarily know how to go to the county board of elections to be able to challenge that," he said.

The elections board's general counsel said the new law could prove useful to the list maintenance process, especially now that it contains provisions requiring that suspected non-citizens must be given 30 days' notice and a chance to challenge their removal.

"As with any list maintenance process we have to be diligent and we have to be certain that we do not remove any eligible voter from the rolls," said Gannon, of the  state elections board.

With all Democrats voting no on the bill last week, a veto would likely be upheld.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.