Court Must Intervene to Protect N.C. Voters, Project Vote Argues

By Catherine Flanagan September 2, 2016

This week, Project Vote attorneys participated in a hearing, with our partners and clients, asking a federal court to grant emergency relief against the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the state agency that administers public assistance benefits, and the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is part of our ongoing lawsuit against the state agencies, which have been violating the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by failing to provide clients with voter registration services the NVRA requires.

On behalf of our clients, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Democracy North Carolina, and Action North Carolina—groups committed to helping low income and minority individuals register to vote—we are asking the court to order the state to take steps, before the November election, to remedy the State’s violations.

One of the ways North Carolina violates the NVRA is by failing to place many voters on the rolls when they attempt to register at DMV offices. Thus, every election year, hundreds of DMV customers are forced to forced to wait in line to complete a provisional ballot that may not be counted because the DMV failed to properly transmit their application. Project Vote is asking the court to order the state to count the provisional ballots of people who present themselves to vote only to be informed that—through no fault of their own—their names are not on the voter rolls.

Our investigations into North Carolina’s NVRA compliance further show that agencies have often failed to offer voter registration opportunities altogether. So Project Vote attorneys are also asking the court to require the state to send a notice to each individual DMV and public assistance client who was deprived of voter registration opportunities, informing them that they can register and vote in a one-stop visit during the state’s early voting period.

The notice is crucial because, for the first time since 2012, North Carolina voters can both register and vote after the registration deadline, thanks to the recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision invalidated the 2013 law that North Carolina enacted to erect barriers to voting: this notorious law required certain IDs, drastically reduced early voting, eliminated registration during early voting as well as Sunday voting (when African American congregations board buses for Souls to the Polls excursions), and prohibited counting the ballots of people who vote out of precinct. The Fourth Circuit’s opinion stated the law’s provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”

Importantly, the North Carolina legislature passed the 2013 law immediately following the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. This ruling invalidated a key provision in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) requiring that election laws passed by states such as North Carolina, with a history of racial discriminatory election practices, be approved by the Department of Justice to ensure they do not disproportionately burden minority voters. The 2013 North Carolina law, along with similar measures passed by Texas and Alabama, demonstrate why Congress needs to pass an amendment to the VRA that would reinstate the Department of Justice’s role in reviewing election law changes.

The Fourth Circuit’s order that North Carolina revert to the early voting and registration rules that existed before the 2013 law throws the ball to county election officials, who must reconfigure early voting schedules and locations. Many of them are motivated by strategic partisan considerations, reports our client, Bob Hall, head of Democracy North Carolina.

We are grateful for the efforts by Democracy North Carolina, and Project Vote’s co-counsel, the South Coalition for Social Justice, to monitor the early voting logistics and, if necessary, challenge measures that discriminate against African Americans or other minorities. Meanwhile, Project Vote attorneys continue to advocate for a court order to immediately remedy North Carolina’s denial of voter registration rights to public assistance and DMV clients.