As the second week of early voting began in North Carolina, the state NAACP and voters in Beaufort and Moore counties filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday contending elections officials are erroneously purging eligible voters from the rolls as part of an attempt to suppress African-American voters.
The request for emergency intervention from the courts comes several days after a federal judge ruled in a different case that North Carolina election officials must take actions to protect people who were left off voter rolls after trying to register through the state Division of Motor Vehicles and state agencies that offer public assistance.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs issued a 78-page order on Thursday for relief in the lawsuit filed last year by Democracy North Carolina, Action NC and the North Carolina A. Phillip Randolph Institute.
The organizations contend that North Carolina has failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the so-called “motor voter” law that requires states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle agencies and public assistance and disability offices.
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To bolster their claims, the challengers included a study by Democracy NC, a voter rights organization that reviewed state elections board registration data from 2007 to 2014. The analysis showed that between 2007 and 2012, an average of 38,409 people registered to vote or changed their registrations through the state agencies. That number dropped 60 percent in 2013 and 2014 after Republicans added control of the governor’s office to their majorities in both General Assembly chambers.
The organizations claimed that the state DMV and state agencies that take applications for Medicaid, food stamps and other public assistance were not properly registering people to vote or recording changes in their voter registrations.
Though there has not been a trial yet on the motor voter law challenges, Biggs, in issuing her order for the 2016 elections, found that DMV had been slow in transferring voter registration records to the State Board of Elections and did not follow up with people who turned in blank registration forms but never said they didn't want to register.
“Voter enfranchisement cannot be sacrificed when a citizen provides the state the necessary information to register to vote but the state turns its own procedures into a vehicle to burden that right,” Biggs said in her order for temporary relief. “It does not matter whether it is done intentionally or through human or technological errors in processing a completed voter registration application. Either scenario could lead to a voter’s exclusion from the voter rolls on Election Day.”
One of the voters included in the lawsuit filed by the NAACP on Monday is Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old African-American woman who has lived in Belhaven her entire life. Her story was widely distributed last week on social media and raised questions about challenges to voter rolls in Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties.
Hardison was informed by her nephew in mid-October that her registration had been challenged by Shane Hubers, a Beaufort County Republican, who submitted a number of challenges based on mass mailings that had been returned.
Though Hardison has been an active voter, including casting a ballot in the 2015 municipal election there, Hubers challenged her eligibility because a mailing sent out to Harrison by a mayoral candidate last year was returned. Hardison gets her mail at a post office box, not her house, as has been the case for years.
Though Hardison’s nephew successfully defeated the challenge, the centenarian fears that she will be turned away from the polls on Election Day, as do others from Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties.
Hubers told The Associated Press last week that he was not “vindictive” nor “trying to raise a fuss.” Efforts to reach Hubers on Monday were unsuccessful.
The North Carolina NAACP contends in its lawsuit that the recent purges and the stae law that allows them violate the National Voter Registration Act, which “prohibits the mass removal of voters from the rolls within the 90 days prior to the election.” The organization also contends that county election boards did not follow proper notification or hearing procedures for the challenges.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP, described the mass filings to county elections boards as a continued effort by North Carolina Republicans to disenfranchise black voters.
The organization was among several that successfully challenged sweeping election law changes in 2013 that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals described as being developed with “almost surgical precision” to weaken the influence of black voters, who largely vote Democratic. The 4th circuit judges blocked North Carolina from requring voter ID and ordered early voting to be restored to 2012 levels. The ruling also restored same-day registration in which people can register to vote and cast a ballot the same day during early voting.
In the return to court on Monday, the NAACP asked a judge to halt state and county elections boards from canceling registrations related to the requests in Cumberland, Moore and Beaufort counties.
“The Tar Heel state is ground zero in the intentional, surgical efforts by Republicans to suppress the voice of voters,” Barber said in a statement. “The NAACP is defending rights of all North Carolinians to participate in this election. We’re taking this emergency step to make sure not a single voter’s voice is unlawfully taken away.”
James L. Cox, another lifelong Belhaven resident, learned from a friend that he was one of 138 names on the Beaufort County voter rolls that had been challenged. Of the 138 challenges, 92 of the people were black and registered Democrats, 17 were Republicans, 28 were unaffiliated and one was Libertarian.
Cox voted in the 2016 primary elections and never heard from the Beaufort County Board of Elections that his registration was among those being challenged.
Similar cases were reported by James Edward Arthur Sr., an African-American from who registered to vote in Beaufort County in 2011 and only recently found out that his registration was under challenge based solely on undeliverable mass mailings. Arthur moved into a nursing home in 2013 because of an injury, but he remained in Beaufort County.
James Michael Brower, a black voter from Robbins, learned recently that his registration had been challenged because of a change of address. Though he successfully had his name removed from the challenge list after going to the Moore County Board of Elections to let them know he remains a county resident, Brower also worries that there will be more efforts to prevent him from voting on Nov. 8.
The Moore County challenges were prompted by N. Carol Wheeldon, secretary of the Moore County Republican Party and a volunteer with The Voter Integrity Project, whose director Jay Delancy says he wants to reduce the potential for voter fraud and show that voter rolls across the state are not purged as often as he would like to remove people who have moved or died.
Similar mass mailings sent out in Cumberland County also led to nearly 4,000 challenges there.