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North Carolina: The Next Front In The Voting Wars

Early voting flag in Nevada(Reid Wilson)

photo of Reid Wilson
July 2, 2013

Democrats and civil rights advocates worried last week that the Supreme Court's decision to overturn a key section of the Voting Rights Act would lead to a new round of legislation designed to make voting more difficult for minorities. And if North Carolina Republicans go ahead with ambitious plans to rejigger voting rules, those worst fears could be realized sooner rather than later.

North Carolina state Sen. Tom Apodaca, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, is working on a package of election law changes that would curb -- perhaps end -- early voting, Sunday voting and same-day voter registration, the Los Angeles Times reported this weekend.

Before the Supreme Court's ruling, 40 of North Carolina's 100 counties needed to receive Justice Department pre-clearance before making changes to voting procedures. Without Section 4, which the Court said last week is unconstitutional, the state can now make many changes it wants without getting Washington's approval.

Say what you will about any individual lawmaker's motivations, there are undeniable political ramifications for curbing early voting. Research indicates that Democratic voters disproportionately use in-person early voting, while Republican voters are more likely to vote by absentee ballot, according to Chelsea Brossard at the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.

And statistics from North Carolina back that research up: More than 1.2 million Democrats cast ballots during the 17 days of early voting in 2012, while about 800,000 Republicans did the same. African American voters were more likely to cast a ballot during the early period than they were on Election Day, according to statistics compiled by the United States Elections Project at George Mason University.

The numbers couldn't be clearer: In 2012, blacks accounted for just 8.7 percent of absentee ballots cast in North Carolina, while whites accounted for 86.4 percent. Blacks accounted for 28.9 percent of all early votes cast; 65.8 percent of early votes were cast by white voters, according to Michael McDonald, who runs the U.S. Elections Project. Republicans made up half of all absentee voters and 30 percent of early voters; Democrats made up just over a quarter of absentee votes and 49.1 percent of early voters.

Do some mental math: Assuming the 1.2 million Democrats who voted early in North Carolina in 2012 all voted for President Obama, that means early votes accounted for more than half the 2.18 million votes he got in the Tar Heel State. Democrats turned out most heavily to vote early in Raleigh and Greensboro, two heavily African American cities, according to data crunched by the Charlotte Observer.

Simply put, cutting back on early voting hours will negatively effect Democrats, and African Americans would feel a disproportionate impact.

Nationally, Democrats have poured millions of dollars into registering and turning out early voters in key swing states in 2012. Sunday voting is a big part of their success, especially among black voters who leave church services to go vote; Democratic field staffers call it "Souls to the Polls."

Even in an era of voter identification legislation, all-mail ballots and efforts by both sides to tinker with election laws, ending early voting is a more aggressive approach than either party has taken. Republican-led legislatures in Florida and Ohio both moved to cut back the number of early voting days, but the backlash was so great that both Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed bills to restore early voting days.

North Carolina is but the latest battleground in what election law expert Richard Hasen has called the voting wars. Without the VRA, and with Republicans firmly in control of both the legislature and the governor's mansion, there's not much Democrats can do to stop Republicans from rewriting the rules.

Then again, as Kasich and Scott learned, there's a very real risk of a backlash. And Justice still has the ability to sue under Sections 2 and 3 of the Voting Rights Act. The battle is far from over.

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