NC must comply with voter registration law

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 has a simple aim: Encourage voting by making it easier to register.

To that end, the law included two simple requirements. First, states are to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license, a requirement that led the law to be dubbed the “Motor Voter” law. Second, it requires states to offer voter registration at offices that provide public assistance to the needy and disabled.

Now these simple requirements have developed complications in North Carolina. Several voting rights advocacy groups say the state appears to be largely ignoring the law. They point to a sharp fall in voter registration applications – especially through agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services – since the start of Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration in 2013.

The groups say the applications taken by public assistance agencies have dropped by more than 50 percent in the last two years, falling from an annual average of 38,400 between 2007 and 2012 to an average of only 16,000.

The groups that identified the decline were Democracy North Carolina, Action NC and the A. Philip Randolph Institute. With the help of lawyers from Dēmos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the groups have filed notice that they will sue the state if it fails to come into compliance within 90 days, as the NVRA requires.

Just why voter registration applications have dropped is unclear. The likely explanation is that when the McCrory administration took over, new leaders at DHHS, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the State Board of Elections simply overlooked the requirement.

That’s the way it’s seen by Gary Sims, deputy director of Wake County’s Board of Elections. He has complained in messages to his director, Cherie Poucher, and the State Board of Elections Director Kim Strach that DMV routinely fails to forward voter registrations to local elections boards. “I think what we have here is an agency that has failed to do their jobs,” Sims wrote.

At DHHS, the decline in registrations might have resulted from problems with the department computer system that handles public assistance applications. The system known as N.C. Fast had operational glitches and problems processing food stamps in 2013. It also has been slow to include the required voter registration information.

This is not the first time North Carolina has fallen out of compliance with the NVRA. Dēmos, the New York-based group that has put North Carolina on notice, also monitored the state about 10 years ago after seeing a drop in voter registration applications processed by public assistance agencies. Gary Bartlett, the State Board of Elections director at the time, worked closely with Dēmos to get the state back into compliance.

The previous registration decline happened when the state was controlled by Democrats. This time, from the governor through the General Assembly and State Board of Elections, Republicans rule. And a lot has changed since the first compliance problems. Democrats were interested in encouraging voter registration. The state’s Republican leaders have made registering and voting more difficult by eliminating same-day registration, reducing the days for early voting and requiring a valid photo ID to vote in 2016.

Given the thrust of Republican changes in voting laws, Republicans may not be upset to see registrations decline, especially among low-income residents who tend to vote Democratic. There’s no evidence that this lapse was deliberate, but it would be reassuring to see the state get quickly into compliance before it becomes involved in yet another lawsuit over its handling of voting laws.