RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Local elections boards in North Carolina are illegally removing thousands of voters from the rolls, and a disproportionate number of them are black, the NAACP said in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
Voters are being removed because of challenges filed by individuals, which the NAACP says is illegal under federal law less than 90 days before an election. However, state officials say it's legal under state law.
Early voting already has begun in this critical swing state, where officials and the courts have tussled over voting hours and other issues of poll access.
"This is our Selma, and we will not back down and allow this suppression to continue," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. He said the challenges represent an example of voter suppression against African-Americans.
The group's lawsuit zeroes in on Cumberland, Moore and Beaufort counties, where thousands of voters' names have been challenged. In most cases, mail sent to an address is returned as undeliverable, which county boards can accept as evidence that the voter no longer lives there.
The lawsuit says the state law, and the removals, are in violation of the National Voter Registration Act. It also asks to restore the names of voters who already have been removed. An emergency hearing was scheduled for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem.
Among those challenged in Beaufort County was a 100-year-old black woman, Grace Bell Hardison, who uses a post office box for mail. She learned about the challenge from a list in the local newspaper, said her nephew, Greg Satterthwaite. Her options were to go to a hearing — and she only leaves her home once a month — or sign a form, get it notarized and have someone attend the hearing for her.
"Her first reaction was 'I can't vote. I can't vote,'" he said. "She was really upset."
Said Hardison, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit: "I'm still going to vote. I always vote. When it comes time to vote, I always vote. And I'm going to vote when it comes time."
The man who filed that and many other challenges in the county, Shane Hubers, said he abandoned it after learning of Hardison's situation. He said he told county election officials he'll do the same if people have an explanation: "I've not raised a fuss. I'm not vindictive."
The people filing challenges in Cumberland and Moore counties say they're volunteers with the Voter Integrity Project. The group's director, Jay Delancy, says he wants to reduce the potential for voter fraud.
Individuals have challenged 4,500 voters in Beaufort, Cumberland and Moore counties in August and September — with more than 3,900 of those in Cumberland County, the director of the State Board of Elections, Kim Westbrook Strach, said in a letter to the NAACP.
However, it's not clear how many of those people have had their registrations struck from the rolls. Elections officials and the challengers say few people attend the hearings over their challenges; many have moved and haven't updated their registration, while others have died.
"We know that most if not all of those people are honest people who are on the rolls and don't know it," Delancy said.
The NAACP says the challenges have disproportionately affected black voters, who comprise 53 percent of registered voters in Belhaven, where all the Beaufort County challenges were filed, and more than 65 percent of challenges.
Cumberland County's election director said similar figures there would not be made available. The elections director in Moore County said she was compiling those figures this week.
People can register to vote and vote on the same day during early voting, which continues through Nov. 5. However, if someone removed from the rolls tries to vote on Election Day, they cast a provisional ballot that the county board of elections must then decide whether to count.
Kellie Hopkins, director of the Beaufort County Board of Elections, said she was concerned someone who moved to a different address within the county may not be able to cast a regular ballot on Election Day.
In Moore County, elections board director Glenda Clendenin said last week that she was determined that such ballots be counted: "If I don't have any evidence that they've left the county, I will recommend to my board that the ballot be counted."
Follow Martha Waggoner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner
This story has been corrected to show that the elections director in Moore County, not Monroe County, was compiling figures on challenges.