In 2013, North Carolina’s legislature and its Republican governor passed major changes to the state’s election laws. This month in federal court, plaintiffs challenging the law are attempting to prove that Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP lawmakers responsible for the changes acted intentionally to suppress turnout among minority voters.
Today, North Carolina residents have less time before an election to cast an early ballot, they can’t register the same day they vote, 16- and 17-year-olds have lost their ability to pre-register, there are more poll observers who can challenge the legitimacy of votes, county election boards have less flexibility to extend voting hours on Election Day and open satellite voting sites for the elderly and disabled, and they can’t count provisional ballots from out-of-precinct voters.
Before the state’s General Assembly relaxed it in June in advance of this month’s legal challenge, the law also had one of the strictest photo ID requirements for voters in the nation.
The plaintiffs face a high bar in proving lawmakers acted with the intent of suppressing the minority vote, but they should have an easy time proving the policy changes pushed through in North Carolina have the effect of suppressing voter turnout while solving no problems.
It’s impossible to determine the precise impact of North Carolina’s restrictions on voting and similar policies championed by Republicans across the country — including in Maine. But a few figures highlight the damaging impact of making it more difficult to vote:
— Most of North Carolina’s new restrictions took effect in 2014, including the requirement that voters register at least 25 days before the election in order to be able to vote. Within those 25 days leading up to the 2014 vote, The New York Times reported, 11,000 people registered to vote. In 2012, those people would have been allowed to cast ballots.
— As North Carolina prepared to implement its restrictive — and now relaxed — voter ID requirement a state Board of Elections analysis demonstrated the impact. More than 300,000 voters — nearly 5 percent — lacked the necessary ID, the analysis found. The analysis also found black voters, women and Democrats were disproportionately represented in that group.
— In Kansas and Tennessee, a Government Accountability Office review released last year found photo ID requirements were responsible for statistically significant slides in voter turnout between 2008, when no photo ID requirement was in place, and 2012, when the requirements had taken effect. Based on the GAO review, the Washington Post calculated that 122,000 fewer voters showed up to cast ballots in those states in 2012 than in 2008. The GAO’s review of research on the topic found that, nationwide, 84 to 95 percent of voters have the photo IDs required to cast a ballot in states with ID laws.
Thousands of votes in an individual election might not make a difference in the outcome — though North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race last year was decided by fewer than 46,000 votes — but that’s not the point. Any case in which an otherwise eligible voter loses out on the right to vote because of unreasonable hurdles is an injustice and an infringement of one’s rights.
Proponents of voter ID requirements and other voting restrictions consistently have failed to articulate compelling reasons to erect such obstacles to voting. Repeated analyses in multiple states — including Maine — have turned up a miniscule number of documented voter fraud cases. And voter ID requirements don’t even lead voters to feel more confident about the integrity of their elections.
Last November, Maine posted the highest voter turnout in the nation — 58.5 percent of the eligible population cast ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project. That’s in keeping with Maine’s tendency to consistently place among the top states for voter turnout.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Maine consistently has resisted efforts to adopt some of the voting restrictions sought by North Carolina lawmakers. Maine has allowed same-day registration since 1973 with voters choosing to keep it on the books in a 2011 vote and the state Legislature consistently has turned back near perennial attempts to enact voter ID requirements.
It’s well-known such restrictions on voters are harmful and unneeded. A federal court could shed some light on whether the motivations behind them, at least in North Carolina, are discriminatory.