RALEIGH — The General Assembly’s decision to do away with voter preregistration in 2013 has created confusion in state driver’s license offices, where 50,000 teenagers a year had been signed up in a program that automatically added their names to voter rolls when they turned 18.
Since September, when part of the sweeping elections overhaul bill took effect, state Division of Motor Vehicles officials have had difficulty figuring out at what age newly licensed drivers should be allowed to register to vote.
This issue is one of many expected to be raised next week in federal court by lawyers representing the U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP and others challenging the 2013 elections overhaul bill.
The parties are scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder on Monday in a Winston-Salem federal courtroom.
Some 17-year-olds are eligible to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 when the general election is held. In years when statewide and national elections are on the first Tuesday in November, figuring out who will be eligible to vote is simpler than in other years.
Counties and municipalities can have general elections in off years that fall on different dates in each location, and DMV officials cannot set one formula in the database for determining which 17-year-olds should get a voter registration application.
For a while, DMV officials tried to figure that out, but they sent the N.C. Board of Elections some voter registration applications for 17-year-olds who would not be eligible to vote in a general election.
State elections officials decided they could not keep those applications on file until the teen became old enough to vote, because that could be considered preregistration – and out of compliance with the 2013 election law change.
As a result, state elections officials asked the DMV last November to offer voter registration at driver’s license offices only for individuals 18 and older.
“Preregistration was eliminated,” Veronica Degraffenreid, a preparation and support manager at the N.C. Board of Elections, stated in an email exchange with Barbara Webb, the DMV driver services director. “Although certain 17-year-olds will be eligible for voter registration during certain times of the year, it is problematic to offer voter registration to 17-year-olds who are not yet eligible to be registered.
“We’ve determined that the best way to resolve these inconsistencies is to only offer voter registration to those who are 18 and older.”
This week, as a hearing date neared for a federal judge to consider whether to block provisions of the election law changes until a lawsuit challenging them is decided, Kim Strach, the State Board of Elections executive director, sent a memo to all county boards of elections with further instructions.
DMV, according to Strach’s memo, will begin offering voter registration services to all 17-year-olds, “regardless of whether the individual is in fact qualified and eligible to register.”
If the applicant will not be 18 on or before Nov. 4, Strach’s memo states, the county election board should reject the application.
The county board must then send the applicant a certified letter announcing that his or her voter registration was denied. The teen then must register to vote at a later date.
“We had hoped to spare counties much of this extra work by exploring ways to screen for eligibility on a systems level at DMV,” Strach said in the June 30 memo. “Municipal elections and other factors rendered that solution unworkable.”
2013 voting law challenged
Monday’s hearing comes in response to claims that the legislature overstepped its constitutional bounds in adopting the overhaul bill last year.
The voters and organizations behind the lawsuit have complained about more than the elimination of the preregistration program.
They also contend that reduction in the number of early voting days, the elimination of same-day registration and a requirement that voters have photo IDs are discriminatory and an erosion of voter rights.
The lawmakers have argued that the changes will guard against voter fraud, in a state where few complaints have been brought to the courts. They have argued that the lawsuits challenging the 2013 changes should be dismissed. Their arguments could be heard next week after challengers present their evidence.
The preregistration program, adopted in 2009 with bipartisan support, was in effect from 2010 to the fall of September 2013.
More than 150,000 teens participated in the program, according to state board of elections data. Of the 55,291 teens who preregistered in 2012, 41 percent chose to do so as unaffiliated. Thirty-three percent preregistered as Democrats and 25 percent as Republicans, marking the first year that Democratic preregistrations outnumbered Republican.
Mecklenburg, Wake, Union, Guilford and Cumberland counties were the top five for preregistration in 2012.
Bob Hall, a critic of the 2013 changes and executive director of Democracy North Carolina, an election reform organization, said Wednesday the preregistration program had helped make this state 11th highest in voter turnout for the 2012 elections.
Hall lauded state elections officials for issuing the memo this week to county election boards about the registration of 17-year-olds. The preregistration program, Hall said, had not resulted in much of an advantage for either party since a big share of the teens preregistered as unaffiliated voters.
“We had a good election system that actually was helping all kinds of voters,” Hall said. “We had systems in place to prevent fraud. The legislators have mucked up the system. They’re making it worse, more complicated.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1