State Politics

Reports question NC’s voting rights efforts

Some people waited in line in the last election only to find that they had to vote a provisional ballot because their county elections board had no record of their voter registration. One in six of those who cast provisional ballots had registered at a Department of Motor Vehicles office.
Some people waited in line in the last election only to find that they had to vote a provisional ballot because their county elections board had no record of their voter registration. One in six of those who cast provisional ballots had registered at a Department of Motor Vehicles office. cseward@newsobserver.com

Newly analyzed data raise questions about whether state agencies are failing to register voters, as they are required to do by federal law.

One report found 261 voters who had registered at state Division of Motor Vehicles offices were given provisional ballots because poll workers couldn’t find a record of their registrations. Another analysis shows a drop of 30,000 voter registrations at public assistance agencies.

Taken together, the possible breakdown in registration has alarmed voting-rights advocates. One public policy group, the New York-based Demos, has given the state formal notice that it will sue if North Carolina agencies don’t begin complying with federal law within 90 days.

“They’re systematically failing to perform their duty,” said Bob Hall of the campaign watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. “It has serious consequences. People are being cheated out of their right to vote.”

Both the DMV and state Department of Health and Human Services say if that is happening, it is not intentional. The health agency said Friday that preliminary inquiry leads them to suspect the true number of people they have helped register is understated in the report.

Justice denied

Almost three weeks before the fall election last year, Anna Martin, a college student home on break, dropped by the Wake County elections office with her father and a sister to request an absentee ballot.

But the office didn’t have a record of her voter registration and denied her request, even though she insisted that she had registered at a state Division of Motor Vehicles office with her family.

It didn’t matter that her father – the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, who was on that November ballot – assured the elections office that he heard the DMV employee ask his daughter if she wanted to register and she answered that she did, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

“I think what we have here is an agency that has failed to do their jobs,” wrote Gary Sims, deputy director of the Wake County elections board, expressing long-running frustrations with the DMV’s failure to forward registrations to local elections boards, as required by federal law. “We have seen this over and over and over again.”

Sims’ messages, written to Wake County Elections Director Cherie Poucher and State Board of Elections Director Kim Strach, argued to give voters like Martin the benefit of the doubt when it comes to uncertainties such as this. He didn’t win.

“If we cannot trust the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NC, who can we trust?” Sims wrote. “There is a bigger meltdown with the DMV than what we are seeing.”

Sims’ frustrations were backed up this past week by Democracy NC. The organization has recently been aligned with liberal groups but previously had a nonpartisan record. It analyzed provisional ballots that were cast in November by people who turned out to have been registered, even though precinct workers couldn’t find their names on voter rolls. One in six of those voters had properly registered through DMV offices.

That amounted to 261 people who should have been eligible to vote without question. The State Board of Elections ran its own numbers last week and found a similar amount, approximately 200 people.

Tip of the iceberg

The intent of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the “motor voter law”, was to reach out to eligible voters who might face barriers to voting. It requires states to offer registration at driver’s license agencies, public assistance and disability services offices every time someone applies for services, seeks a renewal or changes their address.

That’s not how it worked for Sonya Hall Moore, who moved to the Triad in November 2012 and registered to vote at a DMV office. This past November, she stopped to vote in Greensboro on her way to work, but the poll workers couldn’t find her name.

She was told to stand in a different line and was given a paper provisional ballot. The process took close to half an hour, she said. Hall said he thinks the 261 voters – representing 16 percent of the provisional ballots cast in the low-turnout November election by voters who were later determined to be registered – are just the tip of the iceberg, and that many more people didn’t vote with provisional ballots because they didn’t want to wait or figured there was some problem that would keep their vote from counting.

Moore was one of 46 people in Guilford County who Democracy NC found had registered to vote at the DMV but had to fill out provisional ballots because precinct workers couldn’t find their names on the county’s voter roll. She was glad to learn her vote counted but says it was frustrating.

“If they’re not going to actually register, you then don’t tell me you’re going to,” Moore said in an interview. “If you say you’ll do it, then go ahead and do it for me. Then my expectation is you get it done.”

DMV has a process

DMV has a questionnaire that is supposed to be followed and multiple backup procedures to make sure every registration application is sent to the State Board of Elections each day. The division says it has registered about 1.34 million people since 2010. What state elections officials do with that information is out of DMV’s control, a spokesman said.

“At this time, NCDMV is not aware of any systemic problems regarding the registration process,” spokesman Steve Abbott said in an email Friday, after looking into the issue during the week. “That said, any system in which this amount of information is being captured, stored and sent from one system to another can result in some data loss, but there are processes in place to help ensure as complete a transfer of data as possible.”

The reasons for registration problems are likely varied: Errors on the part of poll workers, the DMV or the voters are all possibilities. Whether through mistakes or neglect, the problem of reporting motor voter registrations is so common that the State Board of Elections developed a computer system to help the DMV, but it’s not always used.

Lower rates follow changes

Demos, the New York-based group, began monitoring North Carolina about a decade ago because it spotted a drop-off in public assistance registrations. Gary Bartlett, the State Board of Elections director at the time, was eager to attract more voters, said Stuart Naifeh, an attorney with Demos.

“He was as dismayed as we were about the low rates,” Naifeh said. “He wanted to work with us to improve that.”

Naifeh said North Carolina elections officials started monitoring the issue more closely, visiting agencies to make sure they had the voter registration forms, training material and policy manuals. As a result, he said, the numbers gradually increased to a high of nearly 43,000 in 2011. Registration applications over a 10-year period averaged 38,409, and then dropped by 58 percent in 2013 and 2014, according to the analysis. Bartlett retired in 2013, the same year Gov. Pat McCrory took office.

Last week, Demos and other groups gave notice to file a lawsuit unless progress is regained. DHHS spokeswoman Kendra Gerlach said in an interview that there has been no move to make voter registration less accessible at state offices.

DHHS and elections officials began looking into the numbers this past week, and they are considering a number of possible reasons for the decline. Gerlach and Strach, the State Board of Elections director, on Friday said the numbers don’t include social services recipients who were registered by printing the form from the state elections website, which wouldn’t show up as coming from a public assistance agency.

“Our numbers do not tell the whole story,” Strach wrote in an email.

Hall discounted that explanation, saying it has long been the case that the wrong forms were used. This sudden plunge in registrations, he said, “is much more dramatic and far reaching.”

Elections spokesman Josh Lawson said if it turns out that social services is simply not complying with the law, “That must be rectified and needs to be rectified soon.”

Strach vowed to cooperate with Demos and other advocacy groups.

Since 2012, DHHS has had a voter registration link through its ePASS online system where applicants sign up for benefits. In early 2013, the N.C. FAST program, which coordinates benefits online, included a question asking if applicants want to register to vote.

Yet emails and other documents obtained in a records request detail a history of election officials’ frustration with DHHS, specifically with the troubled N.C. FAST system. Glitches and late updates to the computer system caused delays when it was first rolled out in 2012.

“We’ve tried to work for years with DHHS to include NVRA (National Voting Rights Act) functionality within the scope of NC FAST,” elections official Veronica Degraffenreid emailed in 2013. “I last met with them last year, but essentially, we have received no cooperation from them.”

As late as last September, Degraffenreid was still working on wording for the N.C. FAST voter registration link, including specifying that workers should ask applicants if they are registered to vote where they currently live. As recently as May, she emailed a DHHS official that she would still like to see how N.C. FAST works and discuss voter registration – a request that first came up three years earlier.

News researcher David Raynor contributed.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576;

Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

National Voting Rights Act

Also known as the “motor voter law,” the National Voting Rights Act requires that states offer voter registration at motor vehicle agencies, public assistance and disability offices.

What does the law require?

Driver’s license applications or renewals submitted to motor vehicle offices must serve as a simultaneous voter registration. Any change of address form submitted for driver’s license purposes must also serve as notification of change of address for voter registration purposes.

What are DMV offices required to do?

Completed voter registration applications must be transmitted to state election officials within 10 days. The state retains the applications until the DMV sends images of voters’ signatures. If no image is received after 14 days, the state sends the applications to county officials, who are then responsible for obtaining the images.

Does your vote count?

You can find out if you are registered to vote by going to www.ncsbe.gov.

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