Voting Rights Advocates Call on North Carolina to Take Action after Voter Registrations Drop Sharply at State Public Assistance Offices

Release Date: 
May 8, 2015

(New York, Raleigh, Washington, D.C.) – Citing clear evidence that the state of North Carolina is failing its obligation to provide low-income residents with a meaningful opportunity to register to vote at public assistance agencies, today Democracy North Carolina, Action NC, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute (“APRI”) sent a pre-litigation notice letter to Kim Strach, Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (“NCSBE”), as well as Dr. Aldona Wos, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”). 

Read: the North Carolina notice letter

Related: Read Driving the VoteDemos' report on other states' NVRA compliance

The state must do its part to help all eligible Tar Heel residents participate in the democratic process.

According to the letter, voter registration applications initiated at public assistance agencies have dropped dramatically since Gov. Pat McCrory took office. The number of applications originating from such agencies fell from an annual average of 38,400 between 2007 and 2012 to an average of only 16,000 in the last two years, a decline of more than 50 percent.

The notice letter—sent on behalf of the voting rights groups by attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice—gives the state 90 days to come into compliance with the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“NVRA”) or face litigation.

Approximately 10 years ago, attorneys from Demos, Project Vote and the Lawyers’ Committee worked cooperatively with North Carolina to improve the voter registration practices at public assistance agencies. Successful implementation of the NVRA resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of voter registration applications generated by North Carolina public assistance agencies, reaching a peak of over 42,000 applications in 2011. 

“A decade ago, we saw similar problems to what we see today and were able to cooperate with North Carolina officials to get results,” said Stuart Naifeh, Counsel at Demos. “We made a solid NVRA compliance plan together, and as soon as the state started to follow the law many more North Carolinians began to register to vote at public assistance agencies.  We hope to work together again.  But one way or another the state must do its part to help all eligible Tar Heel residents participate in the democratic process.”

The NVRA, commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires that public assistance agencies, disability service agencies, and motor vehicle offices provide voter registration services. Public assistance agencies must provide these services whenever a client applies for benefits, renews or recertifies benefits, or changes her address with the agency, unless the client declines these services in writing. Affected programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”), the Medicaid program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”).

“North Carolina thrives when all of our voices are heard,” said Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina. “Helping every qualified person register to vote should be a top priority for the state.  It also happens to be the law.”

According to today’s letter, agency registration has markedly decreased over the past two years.  In 2014, a year when there were some highly contested elections in the state, only 13,340 voter registration applications were submitted.

“The sharp drop in voter registration applications coming from public assistance clients shows clearly that the state isn’t doing its job,” said Pat McCoy, Executive Director of Action NC.  “That forces civic groups like us to spend scarce resources picking up the slack.”

In addition to the dramatic drop in applications, the letter cites on-the-ground investigations the voting rights groups conducted last fall at 19 public assistance offices in 11 counties that reaffirmed that the North Carolina is failing to meet its obligations under the NVRA.  According to the letter, approximately three-quarters of the nearly 200 individuals interviewed after visiting public assistance offices indicated that they were not provided any opportunity to register to vote.

“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.”

“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 Southern Coalition. “Thus, compliance with the NVRA is essential if we are to have a government that truly reflects the will of the people.”  

“Politicians, regardless of party, tend to ignore the interests of non-voters, who disproportionately are low-income individuals,” said Melvin Montford, President of the North Carolina APRI. “Our work is focused on improving the quality of life for economically disadvantaged individuals, and ensuring that their voices are heard by the decision makers in our state and our nation. Effective enforcement of the NVRA helps realize these goals.”   

In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states neglecting the NVRA into compliance, with dramatic results. For example, Missouri public assistance agencies received more than 500,000 applications in the four years following a 2008 court order to improve state compliance. Prior to court involvement, the state averaged fewer than 8,000 applications per year. Since 2007, NVRA enforcement efforts have resulted in approximately 2.5 million additional voter registration applications generated at public assistance offices nationwide.

“North Carolina has worked—independent of court involvement—to address NVRA violations occurring at public assistance agencies in the past,” said Dorian Spence, Associate Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We hope that this trend continues, and look forward to working with the state to ensure all eligible North Carolina residents are provided the voter registration opportunities they have a right to under the law.” 

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Contact: 

Demos: Donté Donald, 212-485-6012, ddonald@demos.org

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: Stacie Royster, 202-662-8317, sroyster@lawyerscommittee.org

Project Vote: Michael McDunnah, 202-905-1397, mmcdunnah@projectvote.org

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice: Allison Riggs, 919-323-3380 ext.117, allison@southerncoalition.org