Kevin C. got married last fall and moved from Wake County to Harnett County “to get out of the city.” He didn’t know he needed to change his registration to vote 25 days before Election Day. When he showed up at the polls during early voting, he learned he was not on the rolls.
Patricia M. has lived in Harnett County for over 30 years and never voted. “I don’t care nothing about politics,” she told me. She had no interest in the presidential contest last year, but her husband “wanted me to go with him to vote, so I did.” The officials at the polls told her she wasn’t registered.
Carolyn J. of Wilkes County received a notice in 2009 that her registration may be canceled unless she sent back a signed form. “It made me so angry, I didn’t do it,” she said. “I’ve lived at the same address and been registered for years.” But when she showed up to vote early in 2016, her registration had been canceled.
Isaac M. is sure he registered at the DMV office in Cleveland County when he turned 18. But his name wasn’t on the rolls when he went to vote.
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All four are white Republicans and despite not being registered, they got to vote in 2016.
Ironically, they were rescued at the last minute by a procedure that Republican legislators tried to kill. It’s called same-day registration, and it allows a voter to register and vote at the same time at an early voting location. The voter has to show the elections official a photo ID or other identification and swear under penalty of a felony that they are who they say they are.
Since it began in North Carolina in 2007, same-day registration has saved over 400,000 voters from the disappointment of being turned away at the polls. It became controversial in 2008 because its use by African-American and young voters helped Democrat Barack Obama win the state.
In retaliation, Republicans repealed same-day registration as part of their 2013 sweeping overhaul of North Carolina election law. The next year, tens of thousands of voters were turned away at the polls because the safety net of SDR was gone.
The federal court scolded Republicans for repealing SDR and adopting other changes “that target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” African-Americans were 22 percent of registered voters but 34 percent of those who used same-day registration in 2008 and 2012.
But in raw numbers, same-day registration has always helped more whites than blacks. When the federal court restored SDR in time for the 2016 election, it brought back a provision that doesn’t actually help one political party over another. Rather, it disproportionately helps working-class, lower-income and younger citizens who move more and pay less attention to politics.
That fact was clearly demonstrated in the 2016 election when a surge of new Trump voters showed up during early voting with a host of registration problems. Like Kevin, Patricia, Carolyn and Isaac, they were saved by same-day registration. Republicans made up 30 percent of all registered voters in 2016, but 34 percent of the SDR users signed up as Republicans and another 30 percent registered as Unaffiliated and tended to support GOP candidates.
GOP legislators who contemplate using fraud as an excuse to restrict voting for certain groups can learn from 2016: It’s better to add provisions that help expand participation for everyone – and then work real hard to make sure more of your supporters use those provisions to have their voices heard.
In the first 10 years of the 21st century, North Carolina made considerable progress in boosting voter turnout for both Democrats and Republicans by adopting early voting, same-day registration and other laws that encouraged participation. We jumped from 43th to 11th among the 50 states from 1996 to 2012. By focusing on inclusion rather than exclusion, we can achieve accessible, secure and fair elections that serve all parties and voters.
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for greater voter participation and fair elections.