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The Daily Tar Heel

Voting rights groups will file suit against State if voter registration issues are not fixed

On May 8, the advocates sent a letter to the N.C. State Board of Elections and the Department of Health and Human Services, warning that public assistance agencies were not offering ample voting registration opportunities for clients.

From 2012 to 2013, the voting registration applications recorded by N.C. public service agencies dropped from 41,162 in 2012 to 18,758 in 2013 — a 58 percent decrease.

The number of applications includes new registrations; changes to applications, like address or party affiliation; and duplicates.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, several offices are required to offer voter registration applications, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Social Services, several disability service agencies and the Employment Security Commission.

“It’s not an add-on or a potential burden or something; it really is a core responsibility of these agencies,” said Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina.

The letter said the State Board of Elections and the Department of Health and Human Services have 90 days to develop a “comprehensive compliance plan” before the signatories initiate litigation.

So far, Stuart Naifeh, a counsel for Demos and one of the signatories of the letter, said both agencies have been cooperative and active in wanting to address any problems.

When looking at why the drop occurred, Naifeh said no one knows quite yet. A possible explanation, he said, is budget cuts that caused a lack of personnel making sure that applications were being handed out.

“Or it could be more of a policy shift, where voter registration has been deprioritized,” he said. “Either way, it’s a violation.”

Naifeh said Demos teamed up with Project Vote and visited several public offices, finding that some did not have necessary materials and that people were not being asked to register.

Josh Lawson, N.C. State Board of Elections spokesman, said the board is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to find the causes of the declining numbers before meeting with the letter’s authors.

He said it’s possible the drop is due to procedural issues.

Many of the voting registration forms that are used, he said, are printed offline. These forms don’t include the code that is used to track the applications and therefore aren’t counted in the data.

He also said that, since the Affordable Care Act passed, many people are signing up for health care online instead of walking into a physical office.

Lawson said they are also considering the possibility of the problem being a lack of communication about the expectations of employees.

“Because there are 100 counties and tons and tons of field offices, even though you may have good policies, we need to make sure they’re actually being implemented throughout the state,” he said.

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