RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Advocacy groups and citizens sued North Carolina government leaders Tuesday over what they called a poor effort to fix previously disclosed problems that kept motorists and public assistance applicants from getting properly registered to vote.
The state’s elections chief contends that many problems already have been addressed and registration levels are rebounding.
The lawsuit in Greensboro federal court comes several months after watchdog organizations wrote elections and health officials and the Division of Motor Vehicles threatening litigation unless they rectified issues associated with carrying out the 1993 federal “motor voter” law.
The concerns haven’t been addressed sufficiently, the lawsuit said, and now a court needs to intervene and ensure compliance.
“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 National Voter Registration Act, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, in a statement. His group is one of the plaintiffs.
But State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach, who is among the named defendants in the suit, said her agency took swift action to address concerns. She also said she was impressed with efforts by the DMV and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees public assistance programs, to comply.
“The state’s response has been so substantial, we were surprised Democracy NC chose to file a lawsuit,” Strach said in a news release.
The groups who sued said Medicaid and food stamp applicants at local social services haven’t been consistently asked whether they want to register to vote or offered help with registration changes.
People seeking new or updated licenses and identification cards at DMV offices didn’t show up on local voter rolls when they filled out information to register to vote or to update home addresses, the lawsuit said. Three other plaintiffs are identified as people who believed they had been property registered to vote through the DMV, only to find out their provisional votes didn’t count.
A review of provisional ballots cast in several counties confirmed hundreds of voters whom precinct officials could not find on voter rolls for the 2014 general election had previously registered through a DMV office, according to the litigation.
“As a result of these violations, many North Carolinians have been disenfranchised in recent federal elections and many more face the threat of disenfranchisement,” the lawsuit says.
Voting rights groups who helped with their investigation said three-quarters of nearly 200 public assistance clients interviewed in 11 counties said they didn’t see or respond to a voter registration question, get asked about registration or receive an application. Such omissions helped contribute to a nearly 68 percent decline in the number of voter registration applications originating through public assistance agencies from 2012 to 2014, according to the lawsuit.
The elections board said registration activity is back to levels from previous odd-numbered years. Part of the issue, the board said, was local social service agencies had been printing registration forms that were not coded as coming from these agencies. Issues related to DMV’s online address updates also are being addressed, Strach said.
Groups complained about a similar decline in public assistance registration applications in 2006. Those problems were addressed without litigation and registrations increased, according to Demos, a New York-based think tank involved in authoring the letters to state agencies last May and June.
Action NC and the North Carolina chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a civil rights group, also are among those who sued. Other defendants are DHHS Secretary Rick Brajer, DMV Commissioner Kelly Thomas and Department of Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson. DMV is a part of DOT.