FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 15, 2015
Michael McDunnah, Project Vote
202-905-1397 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Hayley Home, Morrison Foerster
415-268-6021 / email@example.com
Donté Donald, Demos
212-485-6062 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Allison Riggs, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
919-323-3380 ext. 117 / email@example.com
Stacie Burgess, Lawyers’ Committee
202-445-6101 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Coalition of Civic Organizations Sues North Carolina for Failing to Comply with Federal Voting Rights Obligations
The state of North Carolina is being sued over state’s violations of
Sections V and VII of the National Voter Registration Act
GREENSBORO, N.C.–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.
Today, attorneys for Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) and three individual North Carolina citizens filed suit 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), 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 specific voter registration services to individuals whenever they apply for or renew public assistance benefits, driver’s licenses, or state-issued identification cards, as well as when they report a change of address to the relevant state agency.
“Simply stated, this lawsuit is about vindicating the right of every North Carolinian who interacts with a public assistance office or the Division of Motor Vehicles to register to vote with the confidence that when she goes to the polls, she will be able to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted,” said Matthew M. D’Amore, partner at Morrison and Foerster LLP, which, along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Dēmos, Project Vote and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), are representing the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis.
Earlier this year, the plaintiffs sent letters to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) 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 the plaintiffs, North Carolina failed to remedy its NVRA violations in response to the letters.
“We had hoped that we could work cooperatively with the State to ensure that individuals were being provided the voter registration services federal law requires,” said Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina. “Unfortunately, these North Carolina agencies have dragged their feet on fixing the problems we identified in our letters, and it has become clear that federal litigation is necessary to bring North Carolina into compliance with the NVRA.”
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’s public assistance agencies are routinely failing to provide NVRA-mandated voter registration services,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Attorney at Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Extensive interviews conducted at public assistance offices in 11 counties found rampant lapses in compliance with the law, lapses that are having a huge impact on North Carolina voters.”
“The recent drop in agency-based voter registration applications cannot be explained by voter apathy or a dearth of competitive elections,” said Pat McCoy, Executive Director of Action NC. “In 2014 there were some highly competitive elections in North Carolina and, because the state has not been meeting its voter registration obligations, organizations like ours have had to pick up the slack and carry on the work that is and should be the state’s responsibility, under the NVRA.”
“The NVRA requires that public assistance agencies provide voter registration services in order to help low-income individuals and persons with disabilities—folks who are less likely to come into contact with motor vehicle agencies—get registered and participate in the American political process,” said Melvin Montford, Executive Director of the North Carolina APRI.
North Carolina is also failing to place many voters on the rolls when they attempt to register at DMV 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 DMV website.
“A significant number of individuals across North Carolina—including our client Sherry Holverson— were forced to vote provisionally in the most recent election, despite having requested to register or update their registration through the North Carolina DMV,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. “For example, over 150 individuals in Mecklenburg County alone were unable to cast a regular ballot in the 2014 General Election because of apparent DMV errors in processing their voter registrations.”
Ms. Holverson, one of the individual plaintiffs in this case, is a qualified North Carolina voter who changed her registration information at a DMV office after moving from one county to another in 2014. When Ms. Holverson went to cast a ballot in the 2014 General Election, she was told that her name was not on the registration rolls and was given a provisional ballot. As a result, Ms. Holverson was disenfranchised because her provisional ballot was not counted due to DMV record-keeping errors.
“Our clients did everything right: they visited the DMV before the deadline for registering to vote; they indicated that they wanted to register to vote or update their voter information; and they left the DMV having been told that they would be registered to vote,” said Stuart C. Naifeh, Senior Counsel at Dēmos. “But when they showed up to vote in the 2014 election, their names were not on the list of registered voters. Because of the DMV’s violations of the law, these North Carolina citizens were deprived of their right to vote.”
This is not the first time North Carolina has had to bring its voter registration procedures into compliance with the law. In 2006, voting rights advocates brought compliance problems at public assistance agencies to the attention of the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections, and cooperatively developed a plan that, until 2011, dramatically improved the state’s compliance with its voter registration obligations at public assistance offices. See Dēmos, Expanding Voter Registration for Low-Income Citizens: How North Carolina is Realizing the Promise of the National Voter Registration Act, April 2008.
According to today’s complaint, “[t]his history shows that compliance with the NVRA is achievable and results in a substantial increase in public assistance voter applications. The survey data and voter registration data available today demonstrate that the [state is] no longer in compliance, however, and that injunctive relief to remedy these violations is required.”
“The NVRA plays an essential role in both protecting and promoting the fundamental right to vote,” said Dorian Spence, associate counsel at Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We look forward to securing an expeditious remedy to North Carolina’s violations of the NVRA and to seeing a more robust democratic process in North Carolina.”
The defendants in the lawsuit, all named in their official capacities, are Kim Strach, the Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBOE); Rick Brajer, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who oversees the operations of the state’s public assistance agencies; Kelly Thomas, Commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles; and Nick Tennyson, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, who together oversee the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.
This week Daryl attended three different criminal justice reform conferences around the country.
On Monday, November 9th he participated in the Criminal Justice and Public Health National Convening hosted at the Ford Foundation in New York. The main focus of the conference was to bring together public health professionals and criminal justice reform advocates, to create a shared vision for public health inclusion in the criminal justice reform movement.
The following day on Tuesday, November 10th Daryl spoke at the Justice Reform: The End of Mass Incarceration Briefing. The event was hosted by Philanthropy New York and included participants from over 20 foundations interested in criminal justice reform. Watch the briefing.
Wrapping up the week, Daryl is presenting at the National Consumer Law Conference along with co presenter Michelle Drake of law firm Nichols Kaster. Their presentation focuses on how the Fair Credit Reporting Act can be used to achieve racial equity. The National Consumer Law Center is hosting the event in San Antonio from Thursday, November 12th through Saturday, November 14th. Consumer Rights Litigation Conference.
At this year’s Code for America Summit in Oakland, CA, SCSJ’s Ian Mance presented on Identifying Racial Bias in Policing Practices. In 1999 North Carolina became the first state to pass legislation allowing the State Bureau of Investigations to collect traffic stop data from state, city and county police departments.
This massive collection of data was requested by Ian as a law student at the University of North Carolina. To his surprise the data came on a CD drive in the form of a huge text file. The data set proved to be an incredible resource and he was soon contacted by other jurisdictions that wanted to take a look at their local traffic stop information. To keep up with the demand Ian knew the data needed to be compiled into a more user friendly and accessible platform.
He contacted Colin Copeland of Code for Durham to discuss his idea and the Open Data Policing NC website was born. The primary use of the website is to gather and display NC traffic stop data for all 100 counties and each of the law enforcement agencies within those counties. Everyone from the Greensboro Police Department to the campus police at universities.
The website’s dual purpose makes it a resource for communities and a management tool for police chiefs. The website illustrates specific data sets of Stops, People, and Searches and only the ID numbers of officers. Visitors can easily utilize the website’s search feature to research their local police stop data. Users are provided graphs and correlations of how different races and ethnicities are treated in traffic stops.
Before the Open Data Policing NC website, huge collections of data illustrating high disparities in traffic stops, consent searches, and the reporting of contraband seized in searches were being collected but no one studied it. Now community based groups, criminal defense lawyers, law enforcement agencies have a incredible tool to bring about improvement in police management. Recently Roanoke Rapids, Chapel Hill, and Greenville used data to start police reforms within their local agencies.
President Obama Announces Federal Ban the Box. SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson is in Newark, NJ today for a round table discussion with President Obama, Senator Cory Booker and other members of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples’ Movement who have been working for many months to achieve better policies. While in Newark, the President will highlight the re-entry process of formerly incarcerated individuals who are working to put their lives back on track and earn their second chance. The President will visit a residential facility, Integrity House, and later convene a round table discussion at Rutgers University – Newark, Center for Law & Justice, where he will also deliver a statement.
Today’s White House Press Release details the new actions and facts to promote rehabilitation for the former incarcerated.
Note the Federal Ban the Box will only apply to federal employment and not independent contractors. MSNBC writes about the President’s landmark announcement today.
In October 2014 the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM) went to the Department of Justice and made four demands, changes to the policy around public housing for former prisoners were one of them. Daryl drafted a memorandum on behalf of the FICPM or their request for policy change. Today’s New York Times highlighted this policy change.
On the evening of Tuesday, October 6th, the Institute for Policy Studies awarded Daryl Atkinson and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice the Domestic Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. The award was in recognition of Daryl and the organization’s work with reforming the criminal justice landscape.
Daryl’s work focuses on those who are released from prison and helping them have greater opportunities to find work and rejoin society. One of his current projects to help former inmates find work is the Ban the Box initiative. It seeks to ban the box on job applications that ask about criminal records.
A Washington Post article cited this quote from Daryl’s speech that evening. “There are a lot of diamonds in the rough who, if they had access to opportunity, could be amazing contributors to this country.”
North Carolina State Court Judge Michael Morgan has denied the State’s motion to dismiss the Voter ID challenge, Currie v. North Carolina.
SCSJ represents Alberta Currie, the League of Women Voters, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and two additional individual plaintiffs, all of whom allege that the state’s voter ID law violates the qualifications and equal protection clauses of the state constitution. Right before summary judgment arguments were scheduled in May, the legislature amended (and governor signed) a modification that allows voters who do not have an ID to vote anyway. Termed the “reasonable impediment” exception, voters who do not have one of the acceptable forms of photo ID can sign an affidavit explaining that they have an “impediment” or barrier to obtaining an ID and vote a provisional ballot. Impediments to having an ID might include:
- Lack of transportation.
- Disability or illness.
- Lack of birth certificate or other documents needed to obtain photo ID.
- Work schedule.
- Family responsibilities.
- Lost or stolen photo identification.
- Photo identification applied for but not received by the voter voting in person.
These rules will be in place for the March, 2016 presidential primary election while the Plaintiffs access whether these measures mitigate the violation of their rights caused by the original law.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed an Amicus Brief with the United States Supreme Court in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. The Supreme Court, in Harris, is deciding whether partisan political gain justifies deviation from the one-person, one-vote principle of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The lower court in Arizona assumed, but did not decide, that partisanship was not a legitimate interest but held that other factors influenced the drawing of legislative districts in Arizona. We argue (and do not support either party in this case) that political partisanship is an inappropriate method of determining the weight of a citizen’s vote and only non-arbitrary, traditional redistricting principles may result in deviations from absolute population equality.
As a friend of the Court, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice highlighted current cases SCSJ is involved in where partisanship is attempting to deviate from the one-person, one-vote principle and how political interests fly in the face of ensuring that voters have an equal voice when they cast a ballot. The Brief reads, “Holding that manipulating population deviations to discriminate against voters of a particular political party is a legitimate governmental interest would strike a fatal blow to fundamental fairness and the opportunity of all voters to participate equally in the political process.”
We expect the Supreme Court to issue a ruling in Harris in its term next year.