DURHAM, N.C. — On a recent weekday night in central North Carolina, about 20 people, mostly African-American senior citizens, gathered in a neighborhood church. After an opening hymn, a congregant walked to the lectern and asked all to bow their heads. “As we listen to each speaker tonight,” she said, “we ask for better understanding of how to fulfill our right to vote.”
The evening’s order of business was to educate people about the complexities of the state’s new voting law, enacted in August by the Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature. Tomorrow’s primary elections, in which voters will choose local officials as well as nominees for congressional races, will be the first time North Carolina voters go to the polls since the law’s passage.
Though Tuesday’s voting is unlikely to provide a significant test of the new law — turnout is typically low in midterm elections — voting-rights advocates are keeping an eye on provisions, such as curtailed early voting and the end of same-day registration, that they say will disproportionately affect poor, working-class and African-American voters. (The best-known element of the new law, requiring voters to show government-issued identification at polling places, is not scheduled to go into effect until 2016.)
The new law is a centerpiece of what Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House and the leading GOP candidate trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, has called a “conservative revolution.” Republicans, who control the state’s executive and legislative branches for the first time in 140 years, have passed laws curbing abortion, cutting corporate taxes and rejecting a federally funded expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. They also joined a national trend in implementing the voter restrictions, often billed as measures to cut down on electoral fraud.
In response to state electoral data showing that such fraud is extremely rare — accounting for less than one-thousandth of one percent of ballots cast — Tillis has argued that preventing electoral chicanery was not the “primary reason” for the new regulations. Rather, he said, legislators were responding to constituent demands to “restore confidence” in elections. “What we were really trying to do with the bill is to increase the integrity at the ballot box,” he said in a brief interview last week.
Thom Tillis, a proponent of the new law, leads the pack of Republicans competing to challenge Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan this fall.Douglas Graham / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images
Opponents allege that the voting restrictions are instead an attempt to secure Republican power through racial discrimination, taking advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states, including North Carolina, to seek federal clearance before implementing voting laws. The Justice Department has sued the state government, as have groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Lawyers argue that the new regulations violate the 14th Amendment and remaining portions of the Voting Rights Act and hope a federal judge will issue an injunction suspending the laws until after November’s general election. In a promising step for their cause, a federal judge struck down Wisconsin’s new voter-ID law last week; that case is expected to be appealed.
With ballots already printed and the injunction hearing on hold until July, the new regulations are almost certain to be in place for Tuesday’s primary. Yet if the church meeting in Durham was any indication, few of those most likely to be affected have been briefed on the laws, which were compiled in a 56-page package of dense legalese that sailed through the General Assembly after three days of full-chamber debate last summer. Election officials and advocates across the state were scrambling to inform people about the changes before the early-voting period — seven days shorter because of the new law — ended on Saturday and polling stations opened.
At the Baptist church in Durham, that role fell to the county board of elections director, Michael Perry, who has been racing to meet with dozens of community groups in the county of 280,000. He began by addressing one of the biggest points of confusion, explaining that despite the delayed implementation of the voting bill’s photo-identification requirement, other aspects of the law will be in force on Tuesday.
Many in the pews were surprised to hear that voter registration had already closed, meaning that anyone who had not yet registered or informed the election board of an address change would not be allowed to vote. One elderly man, a longtime Durham resident, recounted with pride how a then-95-year-old friend showed up to the polls on Election Day to register to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 — his first time participating in a presidential election. “You won’t be able to do that this year,” Perry responded.
Changes in this year’s elections include the end of straight party tickets, meaning voters who once opted for an all-Republican or all-Democratic ballot will now have to fill in each line of the ballot individually. Perry said that could mean longer lines at polling stations. Also, whereas people who cast ballots at the wrong precinct previously had their votes for national and state races counted, now their entire ballots will be thrown out. Counties will now need the state election board’s approval to extend voting hours because of heavy turnout or disruptions during the day. The law also eliminated an annual state-sponsored voter registration drive, introduced in 1984.
When a parishioner asked Perry why early voting had been cut from 17 days to 10, eliminating a weekend of voting, the election director shrugged. “It was kind of unusual to change something that was very popular.”
There were gasps and laughs as Perry explained how the state legislature’s 2011 redistricting program had divided Durham County’s once unified congressional district into four districts, with tendrils reaching across the state. Some have accused legislators of plotting to confine minority groups to a few districts in the state, reducing their political influence. Durham County has a population that is roughly 42 percent white, 39 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian, with 2.3 percent identifying as two or more of the above. The state’s redistricting plan has carved up the county with jigsaw-puzzle lines, splitting neighborhoods and sometimes even houses down the middle. That statewide redistricting measure is also being challenged in court.
Proponents of the voting law vehemently disagree that it will disenfranchise voters. “I think we’re going to see in North Carolina it will have no effect on turnout,” Tillis said. “I mean the way we’ve seen in Georgia and other states that have implemented similar laws, that it hasn’t had an effect on turnout and over time it has actually increased turnout.”
An investigation two years ago by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that a 2005 Georgia law requiring voters to produce photo IDs had not depressed minority turnout in elections, though it noted that “Georgia’s top elections official could not point to a single case of ballot fraud the voter ID law had prevented.”
Chris Brook, legal director of the state ACLU, discarded the notion that Georgia’s recent experience would provide a guide for North Carolina. “Drawing a lot of lessons about broader turnout from Georgia’s African-American turnout in 2008 and 2012 is absurd. Barack Obama being on the ballot and the huge effort to turn out the African-American vote in those two years is what changed the turnout model there.” Tillis acknowledged that Georgia’s reported increases may have been a result of “growing population, demograph[ics] … or election dynamics.”
Many are questioning how the new laws will affect student turnout. That’s a particular concern in Durham, home to Duke University and the historically black North Carolina Central University. Many students live on campus and move every year, which will make it hard for them to vote under the new law because of its requirement that voters preregister any address changes, according to voting advocates. Others decry the state’s elimination of a program that had made it possible for 16- and 17-year olds to preregister to vote. Younger North Carolinians have tended to vote Democratic in recent years.
Tuesday’s primaries are unlikely to prove a clear indicator of the new laws’ effects, observers and experts say. With Tillis and seven others contesting the GOP Senate nomination and Hagan facing little opposition from her party, more Republicans than Democrats are likely to turn out across the state, regardless of other factors. Turnout will be a much bigger factor in the fall, when Democrats will be struggling to hold on to Hagan’s seat — believed one of the most vulnerable in the nation — in an effort to preserve a narrow majority in the Senate.
Before the GOP nominee has even been selected, the Charles and David Koch–backed nonprofit Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $8 million on anti-Hagan ads. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads political action committee has contributed about a third of Tillis’ $3.3 million so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Hagan has about $8.6 million on hand, according to CRP data.
Even the voting law’s most ardent Democratic opponents say it remains to be seen whether the restrictions will tip North Carolina’s partisan balance in the fall. (The Tar Heel State went for Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and midterm voters tend to skew older and whiter than general election voters.) The NAACP and other groups are moving forward with voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts for the fall, and the conservative shift in the state capital has strengthened the resolve of some liberals to make a good showing in the next elections.
In the meantime, many voters are simply trying to get up to speed with a bevy of changes in a system they thought they knew. “We’re putting the word out to get informed,” said Audrey Mitchell, a parishioner who has served as a precinct judge for more than two decades and helped organize the meeting. “There’s a lot of the law I didn’t know.”