Think tank questions same-day voter registration

The Civitas Institute says surveys sent to voters who registered during the May primary came back undeliverable. Election officials say there can be many reasons for the return mail.

Posted Updated

Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — A conservative think tank says its research shows North Carolina's same-day registration process for early voting creates an opening for election mischief. 

Susan Myrick, a researcher with the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, says a study she conducted garnered hundreds of pieces of undeliverable mail from addresses that voters gave when they voted early in the May primary. 

"This is one more problem what was put upon a system that didn't need any more," said Myrick, who advocates for the elimination of same-day registration. 

Her report has drawn criticism from the state Board of Elections and groups that lobbied for the state to implement the practice in advance of the 2008 elections. 

"We think they're using fuzzy math," said Gary Bartlett, director of the state Board of Elections. 

The normal voter registration deadline in North Carolina is 25 days before an election. Voters who do not make that deadline cannot vote on Election Day.

But voters are allowed to register to vote, or change their voter registration, during the early voting period. This year's early voting ends Saturday. 

For her study, Myrick looked at five counties: Buncombe, Durham, New Hanover, Pasquotank and Wake. Civitas sent surveys to voters who had registered in those counties between March 1 and April 13, the last day to register to vote in the May primary. Of the surveys mailed to those 17,531 voters, 531 were returned as "undeliverable" by the post office. That's a 3 percent error rate. For the same five counties, the think tank sent surveys to 5,019 voters who registered through same-day registration during early voting. Of those, 365 letters came back as undeliverable, about 7.3 percent. 

Myrick contends that a higher rate of undeliverable mail suggests a higher lieklihood of shenanigans in the same-day registration population. She said when Civitas looked as some of the addresses more closely, it appeared that some were empty lots, business addresses and other locations that should not be used as voter addresses. Asked whether Civitas looked at the partisan breakdown of the returned voters, Myrick said they did but did not record that information. 

"We believe that same-day registration will lead to questionable election results," Myrick said. If voters cast their ballots but then cannot be found, she said, it calls into question whether they are legitimate voters. 

Bartlett and his staff question Myrick's methodology and say her findings are out of step with the state's study of this issue.

State board data shows that of 21,986 people who same-day registered in the 2010 General Election, only 153 – or less than 1 percent – failed to complete the registration process. Similar to the Civitas study, local boards of elections send mailings to those who register to vote. 

Following this May's primary, elections officials say, of the 24,769 voters who registered during the one-stop process across the state, only 218 failed to complete the mail-in registration process. Again, that's an error rate of below 1 percent.

Bartlett acknowledged that cases involving empty lots and other sorts of incorrect addresses were troubling. And he said that there were some cases in which a person who was ultimately unable to register to vote had their vote counted. 

However, he and others say the vast majority of cases are people who legitimately vote and then move from their addresses. For example, college students who register at the last minute and then go home for the summer, graduate or move to new campus housing. Others are forced to move from place to place due to economic hardship. 

"It's our job to administer the law the best we can," Bartlett said. "It has been a good law, but it has warts, too." 

Myrick argues those warts argue for North Carolina to end same-day registration. The harm caused by possible illegitimate registrations, she said, is outweighed by any good it might do by allowing voters to register late in the election cycle.

Local election directors who spoke with state officials following the 2008 election also expressed concerns the process was flawed, she said.  

"No one supports or wants to see something that allows a lot of voter fraud," said Bob Phillips, director of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, a nonprofit group that pushed for the same-day registration law. "But this (Civitas study) is picking at something with faulty research and drawing a misguided conclusion."

He pointed out that those who registered during the one-stop process had to provide proof of residency, such as driver's license, bank statement, lease or power bill.

Bob Hall, with Democracy North Carolina, another backer of the law, said it allowed people to take part in an election who might tune out the campaigns early on.

"It empowers people to participate in the most fundamental right of a citizen: to have your voice counted," he said. 

Myrick said that she didn't believe anyone would be disenfranchised. 

"I don't think you would sacrifice anybody's vote. They would just have to register by the deadline like everyone else," she said. 


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