African-American turnout for early voting in Tuesday’s election dropped 9 percent compared to four years ago, making North Carolina unusual among Southeastern states.
The state Republican Party highlighted the decline in black voters Monday, while trumpeting the increase in Republicans who cast early ballots.
Political scientists, politicians, and public interest groups were left to wonder about the reasons behind the drop in black early-voter turnout in a year when overall participation in early voting hit an all-time high. Going into Election Day, more than 3.1 million people have already voted. Nearly 32 percent of the early vote was Republican this year, up slightly from 31.5 percent four years ago.
The state GOP in a press release pointed to the decline in African-American early voting, saying it was part of the crumbling of President Barack Obama’s voter coalition.
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Republicans made a “massive effort” to get GOP voters to cast early ballots, state GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse said. The Republican National Committee sent out mailers with early voting sites and hours. Phone bank callers and volunteers knocking on doors emphasized early voting, he said.
Woodhouse in August urged Republicans on local boards of election to limit early voting hours and locations.
That never happened, Woodhouse said. Counties that had limited early voting sites in the first week expanded in the second week to more than make up for it.
The State Board of Elections said early voting hours increased 16 percent from 2012, and there were more than 21 percent more locations.
“There were more hours and sites than ever before,” Woodhouse said. “The Democrats might have to accept that there’s a lot of their own people who don’t like their candidate.”
An internal memorandum from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign noted that African-American turnout spiked in the last two days of early voting, and that Latino turnout had nearly doubled from four years ago.
“Early voting turnout in North Carolina was unprecedented because the people of this state understand the high stakes of this election,” North Carolina campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that also called Republican rival Donald Trump “temperamentally unfit to be commander in chief.”
North Carolina stands out among some other southeastern states where African-American turnout was up — Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida — said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
Changes in early voting in the state, such as moved or reduced voting locations, and purges of voter rolls may be a factor, he said. It’s possible that fewer African-Americans are engaged, but with turnout higher in the other states, that cannot be the entire explanation, McDonald said.
“There are other things going on here other than enthusiasm,” he said.
“It turns my stomach to see those kinds of declines in a particular group of people who have had difficulty voting in the past.”
Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a left-leaning public interest research center headquartered in Durham, said a combination of factors may have contributed to the decrease.
Early voting locations were limited in the first week in some large counties, including Mecklenburg and Guilford. Kromm counted 17 counties with significant early voting changes.
“Having fewer options — counties where hours and sites were reduced or reshuffled. That’s where we saw the lower numbers,” he said.
Concerned get-out-the-vote efforts by the Democratic Party and independent groups contributed to the late surge in early voting and helped close the gap in Mecklenburg, parts of the Triangle and other areas, Kromm said.
Other counties did not get as much attention, and “that’s where the gap continued to be pretty sizable.”
In some counties, Hurricane Matthew was a likely factor.
Kromm mentioned Robeson County, where communities were devastated by flooding and where early voting hours were reduced. African-American early voting dropped 25 percent in Robeson.
“These individual pieces add up,” he said.
A News & Observer analysis found African-American turnout declined in other counties hit hard by the hurricane and flooding. Turnout for black voters was down nearly 15 percent in Edgecombe County, and more than 20 percent in Nash, Northampton and Halifax counties.
State Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, put some of the blame on the state the Democratic Party and candidates who are not talking about issues of interest to African-American voters, such as affordable housing, community policing and unemployment.
“If the folks who are running statewide have not hit the panic button, they should between now and Tuesday,” he said. “We need to make sure those folks get out.”
Dave Miranda, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said no one is panicking.
“I think our candidates have been talking about issues that apply to African-Americans and all voters,” Miranda said.