- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s health agency is violating part of the federal “motor voter” law requiring voter registration help for low-income residents, a coalition of groups said Friday, adding that they’ll sue the state unless changes are made.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is failing to provide voter registration cards along with applications for food stamps and Medicaid, the groups said.

The groups include Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The group Democracy North Carolina said the average number of voters registered through county public assistance agencies between 2007 and 2012 has dropped by half since Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office in 2013.

In a letter to the State Board of Elections urging compliance with the federal law, the groups said they sent investigators into 19 health agency offices in 11 counties and interviewed nearly 200 clients. Three-quarters of the clients reported they didn’t see a registration question on agency forms and were not asked whether they would like to register to vote, a requirement of the federal law, the groups said.

“Field observations confirm that front-line staff at DHHS offices consistently fail to distribute voter registration applications to public assistance clients,” the letter said.

McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis referred questions to the agency, which issued a statement saying it would look at the coalition’s claims.

“This administration has always supported increasing voter registration and will fully review any alleged variance along with our processes to determine if the Department needs to revise its procedures,” the DHHS statement said.

Elections board director Kim Strach said she welcomes input from civic groups “that share our mission to ensure registration opportunities are widely available at public assistance agencies.”

“I look forward to investigating the issues you raised and taking appropriate action,” Strach said in a letter to the groups.

The groups said North Carolina may be violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. The law was nicknamed “motor voter” because it requires states to offer voter registration when residents apply for a driver’s license or state ID.

To reach low-income citizens less likely to own vehicles, the law also requires that voter registration forms be distributed along with applications for public assistance.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and other groups previously pursued lawsuits or out-of-court settlements in other states, including Indiana, New Mexico and Missouri.

Some of the same groups complained to the state elections board in 2006, during Democratic Gov. Mike Easley’s administration, about a similar failure. A lawsuit was averted after state elections board officials acted to resolve the problem, the groups said.

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Emery P. Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio


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