Advocates say NC is failing to register public benefit recipients as voters

Federal law requires North Carolina to give those applying for public benefits a "meaningful" chance to register to vote when they apply for services. Voting rights groups point to data they say shows the state isn't meeting that standard.

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Voters, vote, voting
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Local social service agencies are not giving poor residents adequate opportunities to file and update voter registrations as required by federal law, a letter sent by a group of voting rights advocates warned the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Department of Health and Human Services.

Executives with Project Vote, Demos, Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice were the lead authors of the letter, which is potentially the precursor to a lawsuit if North Carolina officials don't agree to correct the apparent problems. Democracy North Carolina and other groups also participated in the research that backs up the assertions.

The letter cites both data showing a precipitous statewide drop in voter registration coming through local Department of Social Services offices – from 42,988 in 2011 to 13,340 in 2013 – and in-person interviews with DSS clients that suggest some departments aren't making voter registration forms available.

"The right to vote is fundamental. North Carolina should be doing everything in its power to provide low-income individuals the opportunity to register," said Catherine M. Flanagan, senior counsel for Project Vote. "Public assistance agencies are a vital part of our voter registration system because they connect with Americans who are less likely to register through other means."

"We welcome input from civic groups that share our mission to ensure registration opportunities are widely available at public assistance agencies," state Elections Director Kim Strach said Friday.

In a brief response to the groups, Strach said, "I share your concern that North Carolina complies fully with voter registration requirements, and I look forward to investigating the issues you raised and taking appropriate action."

The letter starts a 90-day clock where state agencies and the voting advocates can agree to work together on the problem or the advocates can go to court to force changes.

This is not the first time North Carolina has faced this kind of complaint. A set of voting rights groups brought a similar complaint in 2006 that was settled out of court. A spokesman for the State Board of Elections said North Carolina hopes to craft a similar solution this time around.

Voter registrations collected by NC social service agencies

Source: Data analyzed by Democracy N.C. and other voting rights groups, first published by the N.C. State Board of Elections. Click here for data as a PDF.

Compliance varies by county

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 is familiar to most people as the "Motor Voter" law that requires people be given the opportunity to register to vote when they obtain a driver's license. But the same act requires local Department of Social Services offices to provide the same opportunity when people register for programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and other publicly funded programs such as food stamps.

"The NVRA recognizes that low-income individuals move at greater rates and, as a result, need to update their registration more frequently in order to effectively participate in the democratic process," said Allison Riggs, a senior attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

North Carolina isn't the only state these groups have prodded to better comply with the federal law. The same group recently forged and agreement with Alabama to work on compliance issues and won a 2014 court ruling that forced Massachusetts to comply.

Data collected by the State Board of Elections show some North Carolina counties do a better job than others. For example, both Durham and Lee counties saw a rise in the number of social service clients registering to vote over the past decade.

Other counties saw steep drops. In Guilford County, for example, 2,966 voter registrations came in through DSS offices in 2008. That number dropped to 103 in 2014. Wake County also saw voter registrations fall off, although not as steeply.

Officials with DHHS did not immediately offer comments on the letter Friday afternoon. Wake County Division of Social Services director Patricia Baker declined to speak through a spokeswoman, who cited an uptick in clients using mail-in and online applications as a potential reason that fewer voter applications were distributed and received. However, federal law requires governments to offer the same voter registration opportunities whether their clients are interacting online or in person.

Asked why the number of voter registrations processed from public assistance clients had fallen off, Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, said, "I don't know what the actual reasons are."

There are a number of possible explanations. At least one blogger points out that the drop happened the year Gov. Pat McCrory took office, suggesting that it was an intentional move by Republicans to exclude poor voters. However, voter registrations began to dip in 2012, the year before McCrory took office, and some of the biggest drops came in counties that most reliably back GOP candidates.

The three years that started in 2012 also marked a period when North Carolina social service agencies were struggling to keep pace with applications for assistance spurred by the recent recession and cope with the new – and at one time trouble-plagued – NC FAST system built to process those applications. Between computer problems, changes in administrations and pressure from federal regulators to resolve large claims backlogs, it's possible local administrators simply lost focus.

Other reasons may be closer to a simple lack of attention. Advocates conducted more than 200 interviews with clients in some counties, finding that three-quarters of them were not offered the opportunity to register to vote or change their registration address.

Whatever the reason, Hall said, it doesn't matter.

"It is really clear in the law that this a core duty of these agencies," he said.


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