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Court Hears Dispute Over Canceled Voter Registrations In North Carolina

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the key swing state of North Carolina, nearly 4,500 voters have had their voter registration challenged. Many of those challenges resulted in the voter registrations being canceled. The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP alleges some of those cancellations targeted African-Americans and all of them violate federal law. A federal judge is going to hear arguments today. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: The bulk of the cancellations are tied to the Voter Integrity Project, a small group in Raleigh that Jay DeLancy co-founded.

JAY DELANCY: Well, it's all through data mining. It's all through taking public records and spending money on postage.

TOMSIC: Like most states, North Carolina allows private citizens to challenge registrations. Basically, people look for irregularities in online data, like multiple names at the same address, and then send mail to see what comes back undeliverable. Over the past few months, private citizens have challenged about 4,500 registrations in three counties.

PENDA HAIR: The protection for the voters, that are built into federal law, are just being violated here.

TOMSIC: That's Penda Hair, an attorney representing the North Carolina NAACP. The National Voter Registration Act prevents states from doing a systematic housecleaning of their voter rolls within three months of the election.

HAIR: The private individuals have initiated the challenge. But from there, we believe it is a state program that is set up and administered by the state.

TOMSIC: The North Carolina Board of Elections disagrees. General counsel Josh Lawson says it's private individuals, not the state, who are challenging voter registrations. And he says these private challenges are a common practice among states.

JOSH LAWSON: If the NAACP is correct in their read, then most states are wrong.

TOMSIC: The National Voter Registration Act does not directly address private challenges. Congress passed the law in 1993, long before any citizen with a computer could analyze voter rolls. An attorney with the non-profit Brennan Center, Jonathan Brater, says the question is whether these challenges rise to the level of a state purge.

JONATHAN BRATER: When you're talking about thousands of people getting removed right before the election, that is something that could very well be systematic.

TOMSIC: The NAACP argues some of the removals targeted African-Americans. It's an allegation with fresh history in North Carolina. A federal appeals court ruled this summer, the state's Republican-orchestrated voting overhaul targeted African-Americans with, quote, "almost surgical precision." Jay DeLancy says race plays no role in the Voter Integrity Project's work.

DELANCY: It just makes me mad when they try and call us racists and use our blind research as an excuse to throw that race card out on the table.

TOMSIC: The state board says no registrations have been cancelled without two hearings and a mailing. Of course, that mailing usually goes to the address that resulted in undeliverable mail in the first place. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.