(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – On March 22, a coalition of voting rights advocates and North Carolina citizens asked a federal judge in Winston-Salem to issue an interim order to prevent widespread disenfranchisement in the November 2016 general election before the lawsuit they filed is resolved.
Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and three North Carolina voters filed a lawsuit against state officials in charge of the State Board of Elections (SBOE), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) alleging pervasive violations of National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) by DHHS and the DMV. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by Morrison & Foerster LLP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Demos, Project Vote, and Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
“North Carolina’s NVRA violations are keeping eligible North Carolina citizens off the rolls, and, if uncorrected, will prevent these citizens from participating in the presidential election in November,” said Matthew D’Amore, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, which is representing the coalition pro bono. “The Board of Elections hasn’t fixed the problems raised in the complaint, and immediate action by the Court is therefore necessary to ensure that the state fulfills its obligations to provide critical voter registration opportunities to the people of North Carolina so they can vote this fall.”
In their request for a preliminary injunction, the advocates cite evidence that North Carolinians were turned away from the polls during last week’s presidential primary election, despite having attempted to register to vote at the DMV. They also point to evidence demonstrating that DHHS is systematically ignoring the NVRA’s requirements that it provides voter registration opportunities to its clients.
“The State of North Carolina must do more to ensure that all voters enjoy full access to voter registration opportunities,” said Dorian Spence, counsel in the Voting Rights Project at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The situation has not improved since 2014. During the 2016 primary election, numerous individuals—even those who used the DMV’s new online system—submitted complaints to the Election Protection hotline noting that they had registered with the DMV but their names were omitted from the registration rolls. North Carolina must take actions necessary to comply with the National Voter Registration Act.”
“We first notified the state of the voter registration problems with DHHS and DMV last summer,” said Allison Riggs, senior counsel at Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “As last week’s primary election shows, however, these problems are still very much present in North Carolina. Given this, we believe that it is imperative to ask the court to intervene and ensure they don’t recur in the June Congressional Primary or the November General Election.”
“North Carolina had a near record turnout in the primary election earlier this month, despite lines being slowed down by complex changes in the state’s voting laws,” said Bob Hall, executive director at Democracy North Carolina. “We expect a high turnout in November, but we’re worried many citizens will be disenfranchised if a court does not intervene.”
Congress passed the NVRA to increase voting opportunities for eligible citizens by making voter registration available through public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices. More specifically, the law requires that states offer voter registration services every time an individual applies for or renews public assistance benefits, driver’s licenses, or state-issued identification cards, as well as when individuals report a change of address to a public assistance or motor vehicle agency.
“All of our individual plaintiffs interacted with the DMV prior to the 2014 general election, registered to vote or submitted updates to their voter registration information, and were told that their names were not on the rolls when they went to cast a ballot,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. According to the motion, all of the individual voters named in the complaint were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but none of them were counted. “Although it was the DMV that was at fault for these North Carolinians not being on the voter rolls, it was the voters who suffered the consequences.”
North Carolina citizens like Sherry Holverson, one of the individual plaintiffs in the case, are frustrated with the DMV’s inaction in the wake of the notice sent last year.
“You do everything right and it doesn’t make a difference,” said Holverson, who has been nicknamed “Auntie Sam” because of her history helping individuals register to vote and get to the polls. “People have fought to obtain the right to vote, fought to register, and now–even when those battles have been won–you have the state failing to put people on the rolls. The voices of the citizens of North Carolina should not be silenced due to state error.”
In seeking to compel DHHS to take immediate action to comply with the NVRA, the motion cites and seeks to rectify both a dramatic decline in voter registration originating with DHHS, and evidence that public assistance clients are not being made aware of their right to register when applying for aid.
“North Carolina needs to take its obligation to provide registration services seriously,” said Pat McCoy, executive director of Action NC. “DHHS clients are often individuals who are marginalized and have been unengaged in the democratic process. Thus, providing them with a meaningful opportunity to register to vote is vital to attain a robust and inclusive democracy that incorporates the voices of all North Carolina citizens.”
The coalition’s motion asks the court to order the SBOE and DHHS to send voter registration applications to all potential voters who should have received them after interacting with DHHS in person, by phone, or online. It also asks the SBOE and the DMV to mail voter registration forms to people who interacted with DMV online, and to ensure that any person who, like the individual plaintiffs, interacted with the DMV and thought they were registered to vote is in fact able to vote in the November election.
“Low-income North Carolinians are being prevented from registering and voting through no fault of their own,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, senior election counsel at Project Vote. “DHHS routinely fails to notify clients of their right to register as the law requires, so DHHS is depriving its clients of a right they do not even know they have.”
“It is our hope that the relief we seek will protect the right of North Carolina voters to both register and vote in 2016 and beyond,” said Melvin Montford, president of the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute. “Such relief will help us create a democracy that is truly by and for the people.”