Politics

North Carolina’s Voter Registration Errors Hit Veterans And The Poor

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Plaintiffs Rosanell Eaton and Mary Perry are honored at the Moral Monday March for challenging North Carolina's law.

Army veteran and Fayetteville, North Carolina resident Sherry Denise Holverson calls herself “Auntie Sam,” because of her long history of helping others register to vote and get to the polls. But when she herself went to cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm election, she was told she was missing from the rolls. Earlier this year after moving from one county to another, she visited the DMV explicitly to update the address on her voter registration.

“I did the paperwork, but they said they had no record of me registering,” Holverson told ThinkProgress. “I was told I could do a provisional ballot, but they neglected to say that provisional ballots really don’t count. So I’m pissed, very angry. My vote could have been the one that made the difference.”

Holverson is one of several North Carolinians named in a complaint letter from voting rights groups accusing the administration of Republican Governor Pat McCrory of violating the National Voter Registration Act — possibly denying thousands the ability to vote.

North Carolina is already defending itself in court this week against multiple lawsuits from residents who claim the state’s voting laws intentionally and unconstitutionally make it more difficult for people of color, low-income people, and students to cast ballots. But if the state fails to respond to the complaint about missing and incorrect voter registrations, they could soon face an additional lawsuit.

“I hope they implement a standard that the DMV and everyone else involved in registration has to follow, and if they don’t do it, they lose their job,” Holverson told ThinkProgress. “Meanwhile, I’m doing whatever I can do to speak up and make people aware. I ask them, ‘Are you sure you’re registered to vote? Have you double-checked it? Are you writing your congressman to let him know what’s going on?'”

Holverson, who became a paralegal after retiring from the military, said she was especially concerned about North Carolina’s large population of veterans becoming disenfranchised because of their frequent changes of address.

“We risk our lives for our state and our country, and then we can’t even vote?” she said. “It’s sad, because people are not even going to try to vote if they feel like they’re wasting their time. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do and then their vote isn’t counted or it becomes a big frustration. Who wants to stay in North Carolina if you can’t even get the right to vote?”

The state’s poorest residents who depend on public assistance have also been disproportionately disenfranchised, according to a related legal complaint. Under federal law, all state offices where residents can sign up for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and other support services are also required to provide the opportunity to register to vote or update a registration. Since 1993, the law helped North Carolina increase its voter registrations of public assistance clients sixfold. But according to an investigation by Project Vote, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Demos, North Carolina offices have been “systematically failing” to comply in recent years.

Between 2011 and 2014, the number of registrations plummeted 69 percent — from nearly 43,000 a year to just over 13,000. This drop did not happen because fewer residents were applying for public assistance, as those numbers declined by less 25 percent over the same time period. In visits to 19 different public assistance offices in 11 different North Carolina counties, investigators with the voting rights groups found that government workers routinely failed to distribute voter registration applications or ask clients if they needed one. Multiple offices did not even have voter registration forms in the building.

If the state does not respond to either this complaint or the one related to voter registration failures at the state’s DMV’s, the groups are prepared to sue. Both complaint waiting periods expire in August.