Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina state agencies such as the Division of Motor Vehicles aren't doing enough to ensure people can register to vote or update their registration, according to a lawsuit by a trio of advocacy groups.
“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 to bring North Carolina into compliance" with the National Voting Rights Act, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.
Democracy NC along with Action NC and the North Carolina A. Phillip Randolph Institute brought the suit after warning state agencies earlier this year that they were not doing enough to help people vote.
In addition to the DMV, state agencies such as social service offices that take applications for food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits are supposed to offer clients the ability to register to vote or change their voter registration. But figures gathered by the State Board of Elections and analyzed by Democracy NC show a drop-off in such registrations over the past 10 years.
Between 2007 and 2012, an average of 38,409 people registered to vote or changed their voter registration at so-called public assistance agencies. The average for 2013 and 2014 represented a nearly 60 percent drop off in registrations. In 2014, 13,403 voter registrations were processed by these agencies, a sharp drop from 2011 when 42,988.
"Over and over again, voter-eligible citizens of North Carolina who have attempted to register or to update their voter registration information at North Carolina DMV offices later present themselves to vote only to be informed by election officials that their names are not on the voter rolls," the suit claims. "Such individuals are singled out, told they are unregistered and, in order to vote, are forced to devote additional time and energy to manually completing a provisional ballot."
Officials with the State Board of Elections say they made changes and have remained vigilant after groups warned the state of problems earlier this year.
"Our agency took swift action to address concerns over voter registration at public service providers," said State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach. "We have been impressed by the commitment of DMV and DHHS to ensure registration opportunities are available to those they serve."
More recent data, Strach said, indicates that the DMV and teh Department of Health and Human Services are improving their performance regarding voter registration.
"The state’s response has been so substantial, we were surprised Democracy NC chose to file a lawsuit," she said.
A spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Transportation said officials with the agency "have not seen the lawsuit in question, so we can’t comment on the specifics."
The suit cites several cases in which voters relied on the DMV or other agencies to change their registrations but were subsequently unable to vote. The suit also points out that state agencies' compliance with the NRVA ticked up in 2006 – the last time the same set of groups drew shortcomings to the state's attention – and dropped off in 2013, the year a new administration took office in Raleigh.
The suit asks the federal court to require the state to enter into a judicially approved plan to fix the problems and pay attorneys fees associated with the case.