GREENSBORO — A conservative activist group has threatened to sue Guilford County, Mecklenburg County and the state Board of Elections over claims that they are not effectively weeding out ineligible voters.
Washington-based Judicial Watch contends that both Guilford and Mecklenburg counties maintain rosters of registered voters at numbers higher than the local populations of those old enough to vote.
Local and state officials strongly dispute that allegation.
But the group plans to file suit in federal court if the two counties and state election officials don’t offer proof they have effective, proactive programs to identify and remove registered voters no longer eligible to cast ballots, said Robert Popper, the group’s legal counsel.
“They’re supposed to under federal law,” Popper said. “They’re supposed to have a reasonable system to remove voters.”
The group singled out the two North Carolina counties among 19 jurisdictions in a total of five states to which it sent warning letters last month. Other states with jurisdictions the group alleged to have subpar voter removal practices included Virginia, California, Colorado and Pennsylvania.
Guilford County elections director Charlie Collicutt said the county does have an effective removal system in place. It relies on the state board’s computer software to identify and remove inactive voters who have not cast ballots in two, consecutive federal elections and who also have not responded to letters from the local board, he said.
In the warning letter Judicial Watch sent last month, Popper asserted that during the most recent reporting period Guilford had removed only about 3,400 voters per year for failing to vote two times in a row and not responding to a follow-up “address confirmation” letter.
Collicutt said that was inaccurate.
“On Jan. 23, 2019, I removed 31,000 names for the reasons that he cites,” Collicutt said of Popper’s letter.
Collicutt added that such large-scale removals take place periodically based on information provided by state government. The county office also assigns staff members to regularly review local records and identify voters who have died, moved out of the county or otherwise become ineligible to vote, he said.
Collicutt said he agreed it was important to carefully monitor voting rolls for accuracy and to remove people who do not belong there. But he said there is a downside that could come from failing to take appropriate care in making sure such removals are warranted.
“The other side of the coin is that you would take people off prematurely,” he said, an action that could disenfranchise someone fully entitled to vote.
Judicial Watch is a nonprofit organization that has made a name for itself as a politically conservative watchdog since its founding in 1994.
It is known for filing lawsuits based on the Freedom of Information Act in such controversial matters as former Secretary of State and ex-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, climate science and the Mueller investigation.
The New York Times has said its “carpet-bomb” approach to the federal courts has unearthed government records and information that otherwise would have remained secret. But critics contend its approach is intemperate and off-base at times.
The group has had some success with its effort to improve governmental oversight of voter registration rolls. Its lawsuit against Los Angeles forced that California community to purge from voter rolls “an estimated 1.5 million inactive voters who have moved, died or become ineligible to cast a ballot,” the prominent political website Real Clear Politics said in a June 2019 report.
Judicial Watch also has claimed success in pressing similar claims that communities in Kentucky and Ohio were inadequately policing their voter rolls.
But in the Judicial Watch letter to Guilford County, Popper cited data from the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission and the U.S. Census Bureau to draw conclusions that Collicutt said are wrong.
Popper said Guilford had a registration rate of 102%, meaning that “the number of voter registrations exceeds the number of citizens in the county who are old enough to register to vote.”
He said the comparable registration rate in Mecklenburg was 107%.
But the local math presents a different picture. The most recent, federal estimate of Guilford’s population over the minimum voting age of 18 is 414,773, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The county has 351,282 registered voters, according to the local election board’s most recent data. That amounts to a registration rate of just less than 85%.
The letter also claimed there are “about 72,000 inactive voter registrations on the county’s rolls, or about one of every five registrations.”
In fact, Collicutt said the county had 52,213 inactive voters as of Friday afternoon.
Under state and federal law, he said, voters are moved to inactive status after an initial round of two general elections in which they do not vote, do not respond to the election office’s written follow-up and have no other interaction with the local office.
While on that list, they can still vote. They are only removed if they neglect to vote in another two federal elections after that.
Collicutt said that because the county relies so heavily on the state’s database, the state Board of Elections will respond formally to Judicial Watch’s warning letter.
“I will work with the state on a response,” he said. “I’ll be involved but it will come from them.”
State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said the agency’s response to Judicial Watch is in the works.
Judicial Watch made similar claims about North Carolina’s alleged failure to comply with the National Voter Registration Act in 2017.
“To my knowledge, nothing ever came of Judicial Watch’s 2017 allegations,” Gannon said.
Popper said the group sent letters to about 100 recipients in 2017, but only had resources to pursue “the low hanging fruit” — those situations that seemed to be the most glaring.
“We have more staff now, significantly more,” he said. “We’re more likely to sue somebody we sent a letter to.”