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SCSJ Files Amicus Brief for Virginia NAACP

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed this Brief of Amicus Curiae Virginia State Conference of the NAACP in the US Supreme Court.  The Court is considering a case which will determine whether voting rights plaintiffs in statewide redistricting cases have the right to a three-judge court to hear their claims.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a single judge could dismiss a constitutional challenge to a statewide redistricting plan.  We argue that the Fourth Circuit should follow every other circuit and agree to appoint three-judge panels in every such case.

As friend of the court, the Virginia NAACP pointed out that “The shortcomings of single-judge determinations, and the need for protection at the procedural-motion stage, are apparent in the recent dispositions of cases in which a three-judge court has been requested in the Fourth Circuit. Since 2010, a three-judge court has been requested in ten voting rights cases in the Fourth Circuit. In four of those ten cases, the request for a three-judge court was denied. In three of the four cases in which a three-judge court was denied, the case was subsequently dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) by a single judge. By permitting a single judge to dispose of voting rights cases where the parties are statutorily entitled to resolution by a three-judge court, the Fourth Circuit is failing to protect voting rights litigants and to provide them the benefits Congress intended in enacting the Three-Judge Court Act.”

The Virginia NAACP itself was recently denied the right to intervene in a congressional redistricting case by a single judge who just days earlier had allowed other parties to intervene in the case.

 

 

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Carlos Riley Found Not Guilty of Assault

Durham, N.C.  A jury today found Carlos Riley, Jr. not guilty of assault on a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon, two counts of assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer, assault on a law enforcement officer inflicting serious injury, and robbery with a dangerous weapon.  He was found guilty of common law robbery for taking the officer’s handgun from the scene.  SCSJ’s Ian Mance analyzed the officer’s stop and search history, which demonstrated that the officer had a highly-racialized enforcement history and regularly conducted off-the-books traffic stops. That information was used during Alex Charns’ cross-examination to attack the officer’s credibility.

Umar Muhammad, SCSJ’s Community Organizer, attended court in support of the family and community members as often as possible.  SCSJ’s David Hall made an appearance in the Carlos Riley case to make a motion to have Mr. Riley’s car returned.

Shortly before the verdict was read, the judge allowed Carlos’ younger sister Destini to screen her 15 minute documentary film, “I, Destini” in the courtroom for her brother. The film premiered at Hayti Heritage Center last week and is about the impact of Carlos’ incarceration on her family.  Here is her September 2013 statement to the Durham City Council about the case:

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We Are Hiring

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) has an immediate opening for a licensed attorney to work in our Clean Slate Program. This position is available through generous funding from Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps for their Employment Legal Corps.   Apply by Friday, August 21st.  Send your cover letter, resume and a writing sample to info@southerncoalition.org.  The position announcement and job description have more details.

 

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Changes Made to North Carolina Voter ID Requirements

On the eve of trial in the legal challenge to North Carolina’s oppressive Voter ID law, the General Assembly has capitulated, voting overwhelmingly in both houses to allow qualified voters who lack photo identification to affirm their identities and exercise their constitutional right to vote.

In passing House Bill 836 on Thursday, the General Assembly created an alternative to disenfranchisement for voters who lack current photo identification. Those voters will now be able to cast a ballot after providing their birthdates, the last four digits of their Social Security number, and an affidavit stating that there is a “reasonable impediment” to their ability to present a photo ID.

This change comes after months of litigation by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, on behalf of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, and individuals, against the North Carolina State Board of Elections. The new legislation follows a series of nine public hearings held across the state this month, at which election officials fielded comments from the public about implementation of the Voter ID requirement, which takes effect beginning with the 2016 presidential primary election. SCSJ and its partners were present at each of those nine public hearings, from Manteo to Boone, and encouraged the state to allow more flexibility in implementation of the Voter ID requirement to minimize the number of voters who are disenfranchised by the 2013 voter suppression law.

At the June 3rd hearing in Raleigh, Dr. Brenda Rogers, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, urged the State Board of Elections “to provide clarification to ensure that all eligible voters may exercise their constitutional right, which is not a privilege, but a right.” Rogers provided examples of how the law leaves open to interpretation many aspects of the Voter ID requirement, which harms voters by creating confusion in the election process and the potential for unequal enforcement of the law.

In encouraging House members to pass House Bill 863 on Thursday, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, emphasized that the feedback received during the public hearing process necessitated a legislative response. When the General Assembly passed the Voter Information Verification Act in August 2013, Lewis said, “we said that it was our intent that every person who was a duly eligible voter would be fully able to participate and exercise their right.” Lewis noted that the new bill fills some of the gaps left by VIVA by providing “a failsafe” for affected voters, ensuring that “a qualified voter will have no impediment in exercising their right to vote.”

Since VIVA was enacted in 2013, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and its partners have amassed a huge amount of evidence demonstrating the burden that the voter suppression bill places on qualified voters in North Carolina, not only by imposing a photo ID requirement, but also by cutting a week out of the early voting period, eliminating same-day registration, discounting valid votes cast outside a voter’s assigned precinct, eliminating pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old citizens, and eliminating straight-ticket voting. These changes not only add to the already long lines at polling places and the administrative burden placed on election officials, but they also disenfranchise qualified North Carolina voters who for valid reasons are unable to obtain photo identification or make multiple trips to government agencies in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Although today’s changes are a step in the right direction for North Carolina voters, obstacles to voting remain. During debate on the House floor Thursday afternoon, Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, noted that the modification merely “makes a bad bill a little less worse.”

Contact: George Eppsteiner, Staff Attorney for voting rights, 919-794-4220; Allison Riggs, Senior Attorney for Voting Rights, 919-323-3909; Anita Earls, Executive Director, 919-794-4198

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SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson on the PBS NewsHour discussing “Ban the Box”

SCSJ Senior Attorney for Criminal Justice Daryl Atkinson appeared on the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 and discussed “Ban the Box” hiring reform with NewsHour Senior Correspondent William Brangham and senior executive counsel for the National Federation for American Business Elizabeth Milito.

From its earliest days as a refuge for colonial settlers seeking a fresh start in a new world to its years as the land of opportunity for immigrants dreaming of new beginnings, America’s story has always been one of second chances. A promise to begin anew to make a better life is both inherent to America’s character and deeply embedded in its value system.

However, the nation has not embraced the ideal of second chances for people convicted of crimes.  Over the last 30 years America has experienced an explosion in the number of people who have come into contact with the criminal legal system: nearly 1.6 million people are currently in prison, 4 million are on probation, and 70 million have a criminal record. For many job applicants throughout the country, one question blocks them from gainful employment and economic opportunity: a single question, often posed as a checkbox on the front of most job applications, which asks about an applicant’s criminal history. For many employers, it has become a way to weed out applicants before ever considering qualifications such as education and job history. This practice is widespread, and its negative effects on job applicants and their communities are staggering.

Rather than let this pernicious barrier to opportunity stand, a movement to “Ban the Box”-to remove this checkbox from applications- has risen to disassemble such structural discrimination facing people with criminal records. The “Ban the Box” movement was birthed in the Bay Area by a group of formerly incarcerated people named “All of Us or None”.  To date, 17 states across the country and more than 100 cities and counties have passed laws to remove this barrier, to great advantage. Atkinson described the successful passage of “Ban the Box” legislation in both the County and City of Durham, North Carolina in 2011 and 2012:

“I believe that millions of people who cycle in and out of our criminal justice system can be successful as well if they have the necessary support…We have seen the percentage of people hired who have criminal records go up every year without any increases in workplace theft or crime. None of these folks have been subsequently terminated because they committed a subsequent offense.”

Durham’s success is hardly a flash in the pan; the gains it has reaped since banning the box are consistent with those in recent findings evaluating the larger impact of Ban the Box hiring reform.

Today, Americans are taking increasing notice of the injustices inherent to the country’s system of mass criminalization as well as the collateral consequences that individuals-disproportionately people of color-suffer as a result of their contact with the criminal legal system. More and more, they recognize how discriminatory hiring practices facing formerly incarcerated people betray America’s promise and are thus taking action to ensure that people with convictions have a fair chance to work. In recent months, elected officials and business leaders have joined religious, labor, and civil rights groups in supporting the national civil and human rights coalition comprised of formerly incarcerated people that launched and currently leads the nation-wide “Ban the Box” campaign.

Watch the full segment and view a transcript of the NewsHour segment here:

 

This post was written by SCSJ Researcher Sarah Moncelle

 

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SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson a finalist for David Carliner Public Interest Award

Southern Coalition for Social Justice Senior Staff Attorney for Criminal Justice Daryl Atkinson was recognized as a finalist for the American Constitution Society’s (ACS) David Carliner Public Interest Award at the 2015 ACS National Convention in Washington D.C. on Thursday, June 11.

The award is given annually to a mid-career public interest lawyer and honors an attorney whose work best exemplifies David Carliner’s legacy of fearless, uncompromising and creative advocacy on behalf of marginalized people. Carliner, who began as an activist organizing against poll taxes, militarism and white supremacy in 1930s and 40s Virginia, became a pioneering immigration attorney who served as the founding chair of the American Civil Liberties Union–National Capital Area and Global Rights.

Atkinson was named a finalist for his advocacy efforts on behalf of formerly incarcerated people.

 

 

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SCSJ honored by the League of Women Voters of North Carolina

The League of Women Voters of North Carolina honored the Southern Coalition for Social Justice with its Outstanding State League Partner Organization Award at the League’s statewide biennial convention in Durham on Saturday, June 6th. The award recognizes organizations for “their collaborative services that have enabled the LWVNC to be a stronger, more effective organization congruent with its mission and purpose.” SCSJ Executive Director Anita Earls accepted the award on behalf of the organization at the banquet where she further gave the keynote speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and examining recent attacks on voting rights.

Partnering with community organizations to defend and advance political, social and economic rights through the combination of legal advocacy, research, organizing and communications is central to SCSJ’s mission. It is honored to receive this recognition for its work protecting minority voting rights, advancing environmental justice and advocacy, challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and ending discrimination against immigrants and the mistreatment of undocumented persons.

The League of Women Voters of North Carolina  is a nonpartisan political organization encouraging informed and active participation in government. It influences public policy through education and advocacy for a diverse range of issues such as environmental protection, fair elections, voter protection immigrant rights, public education reform, and health care. SCSJ is proud to be a LWVNC partner organization and it looks forward to further collaboration with the League in the future.  

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North Carolina Put On Lawsuit Notice Over Declining Voter Registration

This story was written by Samantha Lachman and was first published to HuffPost Politics on June 1, 2015.

WASHINGTON — A slate of civil rights groups put North Carolina on notice Monday, writing in a pre-litigation letter that the state must meet its voter registration obligations or risk a lawsuit.

The letter alleges that the state’s motor vehicle and public assistance agencies are violating legal requirements set out in the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to provide voter registration services to citizens and transmit registration information to election officials.

The legislation, signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton and commonly referred to as the “motor voter” law, delineates that state motor vehicle agencies must provide voter registration services whenever a person applies for, renews or changes his or her address on a driver’s license or government-issued identification card. It also requires public assistance, disability and military recruiting offices to facilitate voter registration.

In a previous letter from May, the groups noted that the number of voter registrations originating from public assistance agencies dropped 66 percent from 2011 to 2014, from 42,988 applications to 13,340. The groups said that field investigations at state Department of Health and Human Services offices revealed that three-quarters of interviewees said they did not receive any sort of verbal or written opportunity to register.

Therefore, the civil rights groups say, the North Carolina DMV “systematically fails to transmit voter registration applications to elections officials within the time limits required by the NVRA when consumers indicate a desire to register.”

The drop in applications processed corresponds with the tenure of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who took office in January of 2013. His administration has said the decline is unintentional, and may be procedural in nature.

Complaints about state voter registration processes are relatively common and have cropped up in other locations this year. Both Texas and California have recently been accused of being non-compliant with the NVRA. In 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration called the NVRA “the election statute most often ignored” and said “the low level of participation by DMVs leaves no doubt that motor voter is not working as intended.”

The letter to the North Carolina agencies cites the example of Sherry Denise Holverson, a North Carolina resident who switched counties in 2014. In June, she visited a DMV office to update the address on her driver’s license and asked to have that change reflected on her voter registration information. But when she went to vote early in October, she was told there was no record of her registration. Holverson was forced to cast a provisional ballot, which was not ultimately counted.

The NVRA requires that unless a person opts out, driver’s license address changes automatically serve as requests to update voter registration. So in the case of Holverson, her voter registration record should have had her new address.

It appears that public officials in North Carolina are aware that there is a disconnect between what the NVRA dictates and what their counties are doing. For instance, a public records request revealed that Gary Sims, the deputy director of the Wake County Board of Elections, emailed the state’s Board of Elections to bring attention to an incident concerning the daughter of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, who found she was unable to vote in October.

“We have seen this over and over and over again,” he wrote. “DMV needs to address their issues. They simply do not get their roll [sic] in registration and this results in a lot of provisionals.”

According to the letter from the rights’ groups, information provided in response to records requests also revealed that in more than half of North Carolina’s counties, voters who were forced to cast provisional ballots last year because their names did not appear on rolls had previously registered to vote or updated their voter registration information at the DMV.

The groups are demanding that the state come up with procedures to ensure that North Carolinians are able to vote after submitting an application or updating their registration. In the letter, they write that they “will have no alternative but to initiate litigation” in 90 days if no state action is taken.

“It’s been overwhelming, the last few months, the number of people we’ve interacted with where the DMV has just failed,” said Allison Riggs, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which signed the notice. “It’s not like we’re dying to sue the state, we’d like to work towards a solution that works for everyone. But if we need to litigate to get a better outcome, we will.”

Some of the problems with NVRA compliance result from an inconsistent collection of data. A 2014 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, for instance, wasn’t able to compare all the states covered by the law because data is so barren.

“Results show that almost none of the states covered by the law can document the degree to which their motor vehicle agencies are offering citizens the opportunity to register to vote or update their registrations,” the report read. It found that motor vehicle agencies, in the absence of enforcement of the law, “have seen little reason to allocate scarce time and money” to meeting their voter registration responsibilities. Data systems between state agencies are often incompatible, and citizens are frequently unaware they should be offered the opportunity to register when they interact with state agencies.

Voting rights advocates in North Carolina are also concerned that voting restrictions signed by McCrory in 2013 are exacerbating registration issues. The Republican-controlled legislature repealed same-day registration, shortened the early voting period and added a government-issued photo identification requirement to vote, which will be in effect for 2016’s election unless it is overturned in court.

“When we had same-day registration we were able to fix DMV problems — as long as someone went to vote during early voting, it didn’t matter if the DMV screwed up,” Riggs said. “Now, the DMV screwup is being felt even more.”

Joshua Lawson, a spokesman for the state’s Board of Elections, said the agency is meeting with the state DMV Wednesday to identify areas that are allegedly non-compliant under the NVRA.

“We’re of course taking it seriously and we welcome the participation of civic organizations like this, to highlight areas where North Carolina could come into compliance,” he said. “If there is an issue of non-compliance, then we look forward to making it more convenient for folks to get registered.”

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North Carolina In Violation of “Motor Voter” Law

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 1, 2015

CONTACT:

Dēmos: Donté Donald, 212-485-6012, ddonald@demos.org

Project Vote: Michael McDunnah, 202-905-1397, mmcdunnah@projectvote.org

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice: Allison Riggs, 919-323-3380 ext.117, allison@southerncoalition.org

 

NORTH CAROLINA IN VIOLATION OF “MOTOR VOTER” LAW:

Voting Rights Groups Call on State to Fix Voter Registration at DMVs, or Face Litigation

(New York, Raleigh, Washington, D.C.) – Attorneys for Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), and several North Carolina residents sent a prelitigation notice letter today to Kim Strach, Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE), as well as Secretary of Transportation Anthony Tata and Commissioner of Motor Vehicles Kelly Thomas alleging that the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) is failing to meet its voter registration obligations.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), commonly known as “Motor Voter,” requires the DMV to provide voter registration services whenever an individual applies for, renews, or changes their address on a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. DMVs are then required to transmit this information to the appropriate election official within 10 days (or 5 days if a voter registers or changes their information within 5 days of the close of registration).

Today’s letter—sent on behalf of the individuals and voting rights groups by attorneys from Dēmos, Project Vote, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice—cites clear evidence that the DMV is violating its legal requirement to provide voter registration services and transmit registration information to election officials.

This letter comes little more than three weeks after the same organizations notified North Carolina that it was in violation of the provisions of the NVRA requiring the State to provide public assistance clients with a meaningful opportunity to register to vote. The letter provides North Carolina with official notice that its DMVs are failing to comply with the NVRA, starting a 90-day timeline for the State to come into compliance or face litigation.

“Voters who either registered to vote or updated their voter information through the DMV are routinely being told that they are not on the rolls when they go to the polls to vote,” said Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina. “They are being cheated out of their right to vote.”

“Transmittal problems are not limited to an office or geographic region,” said Stuart Naifeh, Counsel at Dēmos. “The problem is systemic—it’s occurring across the State and affecting voters of all political persuasions. North Carolina needs to take immediate steps to make sure that its citizens are not being disenfranchised as a result of errors by the DMV or election officials.”

According to today’s letter, in the 2014 General Election, numerous individuals who thought they had registered to vote at the DMV were forced to cast provisional ballots because their names were not on the voter registration rolls. For instance, in Mecklenburg County, out of nearly 880 provisional ballots cast, 157 (nearly 18%) were cast by individuals who said they had registered at the DMV.

“As an organization that’s dedicated to increasing the number of individuals registered and engaging in the political process, we are clearly troubled by the fact the voters across the state are going to the polls, ready to participate, and being forced to vote provisionally,” said Pat McCoy, Executive Director of Action NC. “The voices of these voters are often completely silenced because the fact that the voter registered or updated their information with the DMV cannot be verified.”

Sherry Holverson, one of the individuals on whose behalf today’s notice letter was sent, is a qualified North Carolina voter who changed her registration information at a DMV office after moving from one county to another. When Ms. Holverson went to the early voting site to cast a ballot, she was told that her name was not on the registration rolls and was given a provisional ballot. Her provisional ballot was ultimately not counted.

“You do everything right, and it doesn’t make a difference,” Ms. Holverson stated.

“We spoke to a lot of people who registered or updated their information with the DMV and were forced to vote provisionally because their names did not make it onto the rolls,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. “Some ultimately had their ballots counted, but others, such as our client Sherry Holverson, did not. They were disenfranchised as a result of the State’s violation of the NVRA.”

Information provided in response to records requests reveal that in more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties, voters who cast provisional ballots in the 2014 General Election because their names did not appear on the rolls had, in fact, registered to vote through the DMV.

“Clearly there is a major breakdown in the DMV voter registration process,” said Allison Riggs, a senior attorney at Southern Coalition. “The DMV’s transmittal system is archaic and inefficient: it requires that voter registration applications be transmitted both in paper and electronic form before an individual’s name is added to the rolls. Establishing clear, streamlined procedures and improving training will help the DMV meet its NVRA obligations.”

“If an individual registered with the DMV, they should be able to enter the voting site with confidence that they will be able to cast a regular ballot and have their vote counted,” said Melvin Montford, President of the North Carolina APRI. “It is our hope that given the universality of this problem, all actors will come to the table committed to identifying and implementing policies and procedures that will help protect the fundamental right to vote.”