News: CJ Exclusives

Bill removing non-citizens from voter rolls could reach governor

A bill that could help scrub election rolls of illegitimate voters, a move which hasn’t gotten through the General Assembly despite several tries, may finally reach the governor.

Senate Bill 250 would require North Carolina courts to share with election officials the names of people disqualified from jury duty because they aren’t U.S. citizens. The bill’s sponsors say it would clean the rolls and help prevent election fraud. Other lawmakers are concerned the bill would cause more problems than it solves by removing many legitimate voters. 

A similar bill has passed the House in recent sessions but then failed to get a vote in the Senate. This time, it cleared the Senate and Monday, Aug. 26, passed its first floor vote in the House. The measure then was removed from the House calendar and sent to the Rules Committee.

If S.B. 250 becomes law, the State Board of Elections would set up a verification process to ensure the people on the jury disqualification lists are actually non-citizens, board spokesman Patrick Gannon said.

“We have not internally developed a process for how this would work (as we do not know whether this bill will become law), but any process would involve verification that a registrant is, in fact, not a citizen prior to removing them from the voter rolls,” he said in an email.

The bill would give the state board another tool to help identify potentially ineligible voters, Gannon said. It would be similar to a process election officials use to remove convicted felons, in which the county board issues a notice to the voter’s address. If the board receives no response, after a hearing, the board removes the voter from the rolls. 

That said, not many illegitimate voters appear to be on the rolls. An audit of the 2016 general election released the following year found 500 of 4.8 million ballots were cast by ineligible voters, most of them active felons. Only 41 of the invalid votes were cast by non-citizens. 

A potentially bigger problem is the number of legitimate voters the state could unintentionally remove from the rolls if the new bill passes, said Gerry Cohen, a Wake County Board of Elections member and former special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly.  

A North Carolina resident can appear on a jury list simply by holding a driver’s license, which doesn’t require the holder to be a citizen but merely a legal immigrant. So it’s understandable how a non-citizen could end up on the lists, Cohen said. 

Errors in voter disqualification can occur for several reasons. Sometimes court clerks mix up a father and son of the same name, or erroneously record non-citizenship as the reason for disqualification from jury duty. There are also those who lie about their citizenship to be excused from court obligations, and there may be those who become naturalized after they’ve informed the clerk they weren’t citizens.

A 2012 WRAL study confirmed this potential for error. Of about 2,000 people the Wake County Clerk of Court’s database had recorded as excused from jury duty because they lacked citizenship, only 83 also appeared on voter rolls, and were determined to be legal voters by the State Board of Elections based on DMV records and other sources.

“That’s the problem with these huge databases — billions of DMV records, billions of voter records, thousands of people with the same name in the same county, names that end in ‘Jr.’ or ‘Sr.,’ people being naturalized — it’s really a mess,” Cohen said. “And there’s not an easy solution.” 

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, is proposing an amendment that may avert some errors. It would require the clerk of Superior Court to include not only the name but also the address, date of birth, and other personal information useful for identifying exactly who the person is. 

“Nobody wants to support voter fraud or non-citizen voting,” she said. “But we don’t want to overreach and create a situation where we kick a lot of people off the rolls who are eligible voters.”

The number of illegitimate voters may be larger than a lot of people realize, says Jay DeLancy, founder of the watchdog organization Voter Integrity Project. He obtained Wake County court records from 2008 to 2010, and found that of 6,033 who were disqualified from jury duty, 553 names matched the first, middle, and last names on the State Board of Elections’ list of registered voters. Of the 553, 247 actually voted. 

Election board investigators looked into the allegations and found that only 18 of the cases DeLancy brought forward would have warranted further investigation. Those cases, too, were eventually dismissed

Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, has pushed the legislation in the House for several years. While he doubts the bill would significantly affect future election numbers, he still says it’s wrong for people to remain on the rolls illegally.

North Carolina isn’t the first to consider this legislation. Five states — Georgia, Kansas, Iowa, Louisiana, and Texas ⁠— have passed legislation requiring jury notification to help identify noncitizens on voter rolls, Wendy Underhill, Elections & Redistricting program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an email. Virginia tried to pass a bill this year, but the governor vetoed it. 

“I think it would be a good thing for the state,” Cleveland said. “And if it stops one person from voting in our elections that’s not supposed to vote, I think it’s worth it.”