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NC moves to comply with federal election requirements encouraging poor to vote

by Amy Kingsley

Citizens who enter the Guilford County social services office seeking food stamps, Medicaid or other assistance are increasingly leaving not just with benefits for survival, but also in improved civic shape.Efforts to improve North Carolina’s compliance with a section of the National Voter Registration Act – better known as the “Motor Voter Act” – that requires public assistance agencies to offer registration to clients have been wildly successful in the county and across the state. In Guilford County alone receptionists at public assistance agencies registered almost 400 new voters in the month of February compared to about a dozen registered in all of 2005, according to a report issued by Demos, a non-partisan research organization based in New York City.

President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993. The federal legislation went into affect in 1995, requiring states to offer voter registration at driver’s license offices, disability agencies and through the mail. Section 7 of the bill requires the same service at public assistance offices. North Carolina elections officials embraced the law earlier and more enthusiastically than other Southern states, but compliance with Section 7 ebbed in the decade following its passage.

“Through the years because of changes in personnel at public service agencies and at the board of election compliance was not as good as we thought it should be,” said Gary Bartlett, director of the state Board of Elections.

According to the Demos report, public agencies play a vital role in achieving the intent of the National Voter Registration Act. Low-income citizens are less likely to own cars and visit driver license offices. They are also less likely to be registered to vote: 59 percent of those making $15,000 a year or less are registered, compared to 85 percent of those making $75,000 or more.

“When you combine the low rate of car ownership and the higher rate of mobility among low-income people,” said Lisa Danetz, senior counsel at Demos, “then you have a big need for regular voter registration.”

Researchers from Demos contacted Bartlett in 2006 with findings that indicated the state had stopped observing Section 7. None of the clients they surveyed outside public assistance offices in Raleigh or Greensboro had been offered voter registration services. Their data showed a 74 percent decline in registrations at public assistance agencies between 1995 and 2005. During the same period the number of North Carolina households participating in food stamp programs increased by 24 percent.

Two months after learning about the problem, Bartlett agreed to a comprehensive compliance plan. He convened meetings with the heads of public assistance agencies and worked out strategies that would outlast changes in the departments.

“Gary Bartlett has been exceptional in making this work, ” Danetz said. “And he wanted to make it work quickly.”

Demos research on voter registration services at public assistance offices revealed that several states, not just North Carolina, had fallen out of compliance with the law. Registrations in public assistance offices in states as diverse as Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana and Connecticut declined by more than 80 percent between 1995 and 2005. Demos contacted officials in several states that had fallen out of compliance, but not all were as eager to fix the problem as Bartlett, Danetz said.

Many states resisted implementing the National Voter Registration Act when it was originally enacted.”Many states fought this as an unfunded mandate,” Danetz said. “There was institutional resistance at public assistance agencies because they thought voter registration was not part of their mission.”

Demos approached Ohio’s former secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, and he was not interested in increasing the state’s public assistance registrations, which had decreased by almost 70 percent. The organization filed a lawsuit to force the state to comply, Danetz said.

Other states, like Iowa, have been more receptive. In the case of North Carolina, Bartlett had to establish an automated system. He also said he had to overcome some resistance to change in organizations, but said the system has worked smoothly since its implementation.

In Guilford County, Madonna Branson, the institutional support supervisor for social services, created a required field on the intake questionnaire that asks whether the client wants to register to vote. If the client declines, they must fill out a preference form; if they accept, they are given a voter registration form to fill out then or at a later date. The receptionist cannot skip past the voter registration field, Branson said.

Branson said the agencies are now at 99 percent compliance with the new system, and hundreds of new voters have been registered as a result. There have been a few glitches in the program though.

“If a customer decides to fill out the form [at the office],” Branson said, “it delays the time they can get to the next client.”

In addition, some of the clients who visit the public assistance office every week get irritated when they are asked the same question each time, Branson said. She is working to adapt the program so it bypasses the question for regular costumers on subsequent visits. The Guilford County Board of Elections hired a part-time employee to enter the information from preference cards submitted by public assistance agencies.

Becoming registered as a voter does not guarantee the client will use the franchise, Danetz said. But in the 2000 election, more than 80 percent of all registered voters did cast ballots.

“Clearly if someone is not registered they cannot vote,” she said. “Not being registered is a huge obstacle.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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