Federal Court Says North Carolina Likely Violated “Motor Voter” Law

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A federal judge recently granted preliminary relief requiring North Carolina election officials to take actions to protect eligible citizens who were improperly left off the voter rolls after attempting to register to vote through state motor vehicle offices. In the decision, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs found that the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against state officials in charge of North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and State Board of Elections (SBOE) were likely to succeed on their legal claims when the case goes to trial next spring.

Voting rights groups Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and three North Carolina voters, sued the state in December 2015 after evidence showed that many North Carolina citizens who attempt to register to vote through DMV are not being added to the voter rolls. The suit also alleges that DHHS is failing to give low-income North Carolinians the voter registration services required by federal law.

According to the lawsuit, brought on behalf of the plaintiffs by attorneys at Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP, these agencies, along with the SBOE, have violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), also known as the “Motor Voter” law, by failing to properly provide the required voter registration services.

In March 2016, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to remedy the violations of federal law and protect voters in the upcoming 2016 general election.

“North Carolinians have been prevented from registering and voting through no fault of their own,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, senior election counsel at Project Vote. “These are people who did their civic duty by attempting to register to vote. The state has an obligation to make sure that they can cast a ballot that counts this November.”

Yesterday, Judge Biggs ordered the State Board of Elections to issue a directive to county election boards, informing them that they must treat as registered certain eligible voters who vote provisionally on Election Day and indicate that they registered in-person at a DMV location.

“The need to register to vote is one of the most significant barriers to participation in the democratic process,” said Stuart C. Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos. “We are gratified that the court recognized the critical role played by Motor Voter in reducing that barrier.”

Sherry Holverson, one of the individual plaintiffs in the case, lost her vote in the 2014 election because the DMV did not properly process her voter registration.

“I’m urging everyone who tried to register at a DMV, who is told on Election Day that they’re not on the list, to insist on voting a provisional ballot—it’s your right,” said Ms. Holverson today.

According to Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, the state has been the site of too many lengthy and costly legal battles over voting rights in recent years.

“It’s time for the McCrory administration to stop spending tax-payers’ money on outside attorneys to fight losing legal battles, and start paying more attention to offering the voter registration services required by federal law,” Mr. Hall said.

Pat McCoy, executive director of Action NC, reiterated the importance of voters standing up for their rights at the polls.

“This court order is a good development, but we need voters to do their part,” McCoy said. “If they are not on the voter rolls, they need to insist on voting a provisional ballot.  If they attempted to register at a DMV, they need to write that on the form the poll workers will have, and help bring us over the finish line to a healthy turn-out of voters.”

The preliminary injunction issued yesterday affects only the November 2016 election. The ongoing lawsuit over North Carolina’s failure to comply with the NVRA will proceed. In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Biggs also denied motions filed by the SBOE, DHHS, and DMV seeking to have the case dismissed.

“The Court recognized that the NVRA provides robust protections for North Carolina voters who receive services from the DMV or social service agencies,” said Allison Riggs, senior attorney with Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Her ruling follows a strong line of cases confirming these protections, and we are confident that we will secure permanent relief correcting the state’s many violations of the law upon a full trial.”

“The NVRA helps to ensure that all citizens can register to vote when they interact with government services, and we are happy to see the Court understands the important role of the NVRA in giving all citizens a meaningful opportunity to register to vote,” said Melvin Montford, President of the North Carolina A. Phillip Randolph Institute.

“This is an important victory for our clients and the citizens of North Carolina,” said Matthew D’Amore, attorney with pro bono counsel Morrison & Foerster LLP. “For years, the North Carolina DMV, DHHS, and SBOE have been failing to offer opportunities to register to vote as the NVRA requires, leaving many citizens at risk of being left out of the political process and directly affecting our clients. Our clients brought this action to help bring North Carolina into compliance with the law, and the Court has now found that we are likely to succeed in proving our case.”

“This is an important decision that potentially impacts many people, a disproportionate number of whom are African American and poor,” said Dorian Spence of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The NVRA’s purpose is to ensure that opportunities to register to vote are widely available. This ruling helps to secure access to the ballot box for many voters across North Carolina who attempted to register at the DMV, but were unsuccessful, and ensures that their provisional ballots will be counted in November.”

 

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