End of straight-ticket voting in NC tinged with racial, age bias

Tucked deep inside North Carolina’s election revision law that has stirred great passion is a provision that barely gets noticed. It’s not part of any lawsuit, but it eliminates a method of voting that affects more people than nearly any other part of the new law.

This change also illustrates how lawmakers can manipulate rules to harm one group of voters but wind up harming a large number of their own supporters, too.

In 2012, a solid majority – 56 percent – of North Carolina voters marked one box on their ballots to indicate their choices in more than a dozen races, from governor to county commissioner. It’s called straight-ticket voting, and in 2012 it involved 1.4 million ballots for Democratic candidates and 1.1 million for Republicans.

In an ideal world, our schools, TV stations and other media would teach people about civics and citizenship, the importance of voting, the candidates and offices on the ballot, and how to determine who’s a goat, not just a donkey or elephant. Instead, voting is discounted, and contests are covered like a horse race – who’s ahead in the polls and who’s got the most money behind him.

Given that reality, the straight-ticket option gives voters a handy way to participate in many contests with a single mark for a party’s slate of candidates. That’s especially helpful with North Carolina’s notoriously long ballot, which extends to partisan races for clerk of court, even coroner. Straight-ticket voting allows voters to efficiently, effectively show support for candidates of the party that best shares their values. It makes the voting process less intimidating and more accessible, and it reduces the waiting time for everybody.

Why get rid of it? Because Republican leaders decided it hurts their chances to win more elections. The change has nothing to do with preventing fraud or improving integrity; it’s all about analyzing the voting behavior of supporters and opponents for a party’s self-serving gain.

Democratic Party leaders have done similar calculations and changed election rules, often to make voting easier, but in modern times the GOP has focused much more on reducing access for its perceived opponents rather than making voting more available to its supporters.

The tip-off of this exclusionary strategy, and indeed the whole rationale behind the sweeping changes to state election law, comes from statements by Jack Hawke, a former NC GOP chair, former president of the Civitas Institute and former campaign manager for Pat McCrory. After the Democrats’ 2008 victory, Hawke wrote a column for the Carolina Journal explaining why the McCrory campaign fell short that year. Blame the straight ticket and early voting, he said.

“The [Obama] campaign targeted the most likely straight-ticket voters and made sure they voted early. The number of black and young voters was unprecedented,” Hawke wrote. “The Obama campaign had estimated that if 24 percent of the total vote was African-American they would carry the state. In fact, 27 percent of early voters statewide . . . were African-American.”

When you read Hawk’s explanation, you can understand how the GOP came to believe that to achieve victory it had to reverse the high turnout of black and young voters, go after straight-ticket voting and early voting, and cut same-day registration during early voting, which heavily favored youth and African-Americans.

The partisan goal of victory became completely intertwined with an anti-black, anti-youth electoral strategy, intentionally, purposefully. To recognize it as partisan does not excuse its racial and age bias. It may not be hateful, but it does hurt real people.

In his rejection of the NAACP and League of Women Voter’s motion to stop several parts of the new election law, Judge Thomas Schroeder said they had not demonstrated that “racial animus was a motivating factor” behind the legislators’ action. But that’s a twisted interpretation of federal protections against discrimination. Whether black voters are targeted out of fear or animosity or partisan greed matters less than the purposeful goal of making it harder for them to vote; they are the targets of intentional discrimination.

It would be far better if Republican leaders focused on increasing the participation of their potential supporters. They did this in the new law by making mail-in absentee voting easier, which has traditionally helped more Republicans than Democrats. That’s a positive reform that tilts in their party’s favor, but it’s open for all voters to use.

By contrast, rigging the rules to make participation harder for certain voters violates our nation’s best values and the Republican Party’s own founding purpose.

Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights and election watchdog organization.