Widespread disenfranchisement and a steep decline in voter registration activity have led a coalition of civic organizations and voters to file a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for violation of an important federal voting rights law.
On December 15, 2015, the Lawyers’ Committee, together with with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Dēmos, Project Vote and pro bono counsel Morrison and Foerster LLP filed suit on behalf of Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, and three individual North Carolina against the state officials responsible for elections, public assistance programs and motor vehicle services for failing to provide federally mandated voter registration opportunities, in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court Middle District of North Carolina.
The NVRA, commonly referred to as the “Motor Voter” law, is aimed at increasing voting opportunities for eligible citizens by making voter registration accessible at the government locations people visit most frequently. The NVRA requires that public assistance agencies—like the agencies that run WIC, TANF, and Medicaid—and motor vehicle offices provide voter registration services to individuals whenever they apply for or renew public assistance benefits, driver’s licenses, or state-issued ID cards, as well as when they report a change of address to the relevant state agency.
Earlier in 2015, plaintiffs sent letters to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (NCDMV) notifying them that they were violating the NVRA, and urging them to fix the problems and bring the state into compliance with the law. According to plaintiffs, North Carolina failed to remedy its NVRA violations in response to the letters.
State data show a steep decline, beginning in 2012, in the number of voter registration applications originating from public assistance agencies, far exceeding any change in the public assistance caseload. North Carolina is also failing to place many voters on the rolls when they attempt to register at NCDMV offices. The state is similarly failing to offer required voter registration services to individuals who renew their driver’s licenses or non-driver identification cards through the mail or on the NCDMV website.
Defendants, all named in their official capacities, are Kim Strach, the Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections; Rick Brajer, Secretary of the NCDHHS, who oversees the operations of the state’s public assistance agencies; Kelly Thomas, Commissioner of the NCDMV; and Nick Tennyson, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, who together oversee the NCDMV. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on March 17, 2016. Plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction on March 22, 2016. Argument was held on the motion to dismiss and preliminary injunction motion on August 28, 2016.