This week the Republicans in the state Senate have revealed a proposal to dramatically shorten the early voting period and eliminate the ability to register when early voting. If this legislation passes, it will mark a huge step backward for citizen participation in our state.
What has early voting with same-day voter registration done for North Carolina? A lot, according to data from Michael McDonald’s voter turnout project (http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm). Only 31 percent of North Carolina’s eligible voters participated in the 2006 midterm election and 58 percent in the 2004 presidential election (placing us 38th out of the 50 states).
In 2007, though, North Carolina began allowing voters to register to vote at the same time they participated in early voting, i.e., one-stop voting, thereby eliminating an extra step and barrier to participation. The results? In 2008 almost 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the election and in the 2010 midterm 39 percent participated. Turnout remained high in 2012 with 65 percent participation (pushing us up to 11th out of 50 states).
These are huge increases that represent literally hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians being brought into the political process. So, why on earth would anybody want to change this?
Well, sadly, it’s pretty easy to see why. In an analysis of voting law changes in Florida, political scientists Michael Herron and Daniel Smith found that Black, Hispanic, young and first-time voters were disproportionately likely to vote early. Of course, in recent elections it is well established that these are the exact groups most likely to support Democratic candidates. As for the changes Florida made before the last election, they resulted in long lines with excessive waiting that would have embarrassed a third-world nation.
Statehouse Republicans are offering plenty of other reasons why these changes need to be made, but it’s hard to overlook that basic electoral calculus. While from a purely partisan perspective it is perhaps understandable why Republicans would want to make these changes, it does not change the fact that eliminating SDR will undoubtedly lower electoral participation in North Carolina, make it harder for N.C. citizens to vote and eliminate many of the additional benefits that come from SDR.
Although much of the attention on voting laws has been focused on the voter ID issue (those rampant two cases of in-person voter fraud in N.C. in the past decade surely need a response), the elimination of SDR is likely to have a far more significant negative impact on North Carolina’s democracy.
In the most comprehensive review of state election laws on early voting and registration, political scientist Barry Burden and colleagues determined that early voting without SDR leads to a quite significant decline in turnout. It seems that on its own, early voting primarily appeals to those who were already inclined to vote and that it actually diminishes the excitement and political stimulation that come with a single election day, resulting in overall lower turnout. However, once you allow the opportunity for one-stop registration and voting – either early or on election day itself – you bring many more people into the political process. Something we presumably want in a healthy democracy.
In short, early voting with SDR – the current North Carolina law – results in substantially greater citizen participation – of which we’ve seen clear, positive results in recent elections. To keep early voting, but eliminate SDR – as the current proposal does – is a recipe to shrink the electorate and send North Carolina turnout levels back down toward the bottom tier of states in electoral participation – the fundamental aspect of any democracy. If any voting reform is needed, the evidence is quite clear that it should simply be to expand registration to Election Day itself – plainly demonstrated to be the ultimate policy for boosting voter participation.
Finally, from a practical perspective, any one-stop voting procedure is simply smart public policy. It is simpler, more cost effective, and results in fewer ballot rejections than alternatives such as absentee voting. If the North Carolina General Assembly truly cares about protecting the voting rights of North Carolina citizens rather than protecting their own seats, the evidence is clear that early voting with SDR must be maintained and expanded.
Steven Greene is a political science professor
in the School of Public and International Affairs
at N.C. State University.