Vote still out on impact of NC’s new election law on turnout

Early voters crowd the sidewalk at Cary’s Herb Young Community Center on Oct. 30.
Early voters crowd the sidewalk at Cary’s Herb Young Community Center on Oct. 30. cliddy@newsobserver.com

With roughly 44 percent of registered voters participating in 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, the impact of changes to North Carolina’s election law on the overall turnout remains unclear.

Supporters of the changes – which include a shorter early voting period and the loss of same-day registration – say the turnout shows that claims of “voter suppression” were unfounded. Early voting participation and early turnout among minorities was higher than in 2010.

But liberal groups say the turnout would have been even higher had the Republican-dominated legislature rejected the changes. They point to a study by Democracy North Carolina that estimated that 50,000 voters were “silenced” by the new law. That figure was generated from calls to a voting hotline, reports from volunteer poll monitors and a review of past election data.

A deluge of ads in the most expensive U.S. Senate race in state history didn’t change turnout much. It barely increased, from 43.3 percent in 2010 to 44.3 percent this year.

“What I saw overall was an increase in turnout, and especially in the African-American community, the increase in turnout was even bigger,” said Susan Myrick, an elections analyst for the conservative Civitas Institute. “I wouldn’t say that the voter law impacted the turnout at all.”

Data released this month show 42.2 percent of black registered voters participated in this year’s election, a nearly 2-point increase from 2010. Turnout in the 18-25 age group went up 3 percent to 17.8 percent of registered voters.

Not everyone was impressed by the turnout figures. Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said many had expected the numbers to rival a presidential election year. The final tallies didn’t come close to the 68.2 percent turnout two years ago.

Even some previous midterm voters sat out. Records for individual voters show that 498,203 people who voted in the 2010 midterm didn’t participate in 2014, despite remaining listed as “active” on voter rolls. It’s impossible to tell how many of those sat out this year because of changes in voting laws.

Some in that category say they were confused by conflicting court decisions made in the lawsuit challenging the changes. Just days before the registration deadline, a judge reinstated same-day registration – only to have that ruling overturned a few days later.

UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Amy Bryson was among those who mistakenly tried to use same-day registration after the court confusion. In an opinion piece published in The News & Observer, she wrote that the shift created “a lot of changes and a lot of information to process.” She says she wasn’t allowed to vote this year after missing the deadline.

Myrick dismisses Democracy North Carolina’s assertion that earlier vote totals for same-day registration represent an estimate of how many voters were turned away this year. “The people that used same-day registration last year would have been able to register by the deadline last year,” she said.

While same-day registration was eliminated and the early voting period was shorter, the percentage of voters casting their ballots early increased – from 14.6 percent in 2010 to 16.8 percent this year. That’s 203,800 more voters using the option than in the previous midterm.

Early voting turnout was up sharply among Democrats (4.1 percent), black voters (4.7 percent) and those age 18-25 (3 percent).

Myrick said the increase could be related to a larger number of early voting sites in some areas. Because the legislation required counties to offer the same number of voting hours in a shorter period, many opened additional polling sites.

Hall, however, credits efforts to get out the vote and a backlash against the perceived curb on voting rights. “It was a product of a lot of deliberate effort to encourage those folks who were affected not to be discouraged – to make a statement by voting,” he said.

A long ballot coupled with the end of straight-party voting did, however, lead to long lines at some polling places.

Some of the longest lines were spotted at the Taylors precinct in Wilson County. “We had to snake the line so drastically around the precinct that it was up to a three-hour wait,” county Republican Party Chairman Gary Proffitt told Democracy NC.

Turnout at the site was down 6.6 percent from the 2010 midterm. Had the precinct’s turnout this year tracked the percentage from four years ago, 400 more voters would have cast ballots there.

The same turnout trend appeared at two other sites where the group identified long lines. Turnout dropped 2.3 percent from 2010 at Chavis Community Center in Raleigh and 2.8 percent at Sedge Garden Elementary in Kernersville. At the Kernersville site, voters were still waiting to vote at nearly 9 p.m.

Hall says the delays were prompted by a shortage of voting booths as voters took longer to fill out ballots. “The loss of (straight party voting) caught elections officials in a number of places off guard,” he said. “They didn’t furnish enough elections officials inside.”

Hall’s group also heard from some who waited in line on Election Day only to discover they were in the wrong place. In past elections, that wasn’t a problem – they simply cast a provisional ballot to be verified and counted later. That option was eliminated in the new law.

Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

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