It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the voting bill currently hurtling through the North Carolina legislature. What the Republican-dominated body calls a “Voter Protection” bill has a laundry list of provisions, almost all of which make voting harder for the general population and disproportionately hard for voters of color, young voters, or low-income people. “The types of provisions are not unheard of,” says Denise Lieberman, senior council for the voting rights advocacy group the Advancement Project. “What’s unheard of is doing all them all at once.” Lieberman calls the measure “the most broad-sweeping assault on voting rights in the country.” She’s not exaggerating.
Simply put, the law would turn the state with the South’s most progressive voting laws, and the region’s highest turnout in the last two presidential elections, into a state with perhaps the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. In doing so, it could also provide a national model for erecting obstacles to voting.
House Bill 589 arrived in the state senate three months ago as a simple voter ID bill. It was only this week, at the last minute before the legislature moves toward adjournment, that Republican senators transformed the measure into something far more drastic. HB 589 has metastasized into an “omnibus bill” of a dizzying scope. In addition to limiting the types of ID voters would be allowed to use at the polls, the bill also ends same-day registration—in which you can register and vote in one visit—and cuts the state’s 17-day early voting period by one full week. It prohibits paid voter registration drives (which tend to register more poor and nonwhite voters) and eliminates provisional voting if someone comes to the wrong precinct to cast a ballot. The list of restrictive measures goes on and on. North Carolina is one of the few states that encourages high-schoolers to pre-register, so they can begin participating as soon as they turn 18—not anymore, under this bill. Any registered voter would be able to challenge the eligibility of another at the polls. Perhaps most alarmingly, polling stations would no longer stay open to accommodate long lines on election nights. Those still in line when the closing time came might not be able to vote.
“Voter suppression” may be an overused term on the left, but in this case, it’s hard to imagine what else to call a bill with so many provisions designed to create barriers to the ballot box. There’s no secret why the senate waited to act on the original house bill. As in several other Southern states, GOP lawmakers wanted to see how the Supreme Court would rule on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required that states and counties with histories of voter discrimination would have to get permission from the Justice Department before changing election law. In North Carolina, 40 counties fell under this “preclearance” requirement. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the method for deciding which states and counties were required was unfair, and suddenly, North Carolina no longer had to seek pre-approval to make voting more difficult for particular groups of citizens.
Republican lawmakers, who have spent the last six months converting the first GOP supermajorities in North Carolina history into extreme and controversial far right legislation on a wide range of issues, are now seeing just how far they can take things when it comes to voting. All eyes are on the state—and among voting-rights advocates like Lieberman, there’s tremendous concern that the legislature’s approach will inspire copycats in other states.
But given North Carolina’s voting history, the measure is particularly sad. “It’s not like they’re doing these measures in the context of a state that has decades of high turnout,” says Bob Hall, the director of Democracy North Carolina, a voter education and participation group. “We don’t have a deep tradition of voter participation. We just started it. We just got it going and they’re trying to undercut it.”
Like most Southern states, North Carolina traditionally suffered from dismal voter turnout, ranking among the bottom 15 states in election after election. A coalition of civic groups, lead by the state NAACP president, the Reverend William Barber, worked for years to get the legislature to address the problem. In 2000, early voting was first instituted, and in 2007, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed a set of measures that increased the early-voting period to 17 days and offered citizens the option of registering and voting on the same day. There were also long-term investments, like pre-registering 16- and 17-year olds. State Representative Danny McComas, one of the Republicans who supported the bill, proclaimed, “It’s a sacred right that we have to vote.”
The changes bore fruit almost immediately. In 2008, with help from the historic nature of Barack Obama’s candidacy and his campaign’s aggressive mobilization effort, North Carolina leapt into the top 15 states for voter turnout. Just how much early voting and liberalized registration can be credited for the increase isn’t certain, but what is clear is that Obama organizers made extra days at the polls an essential part of their strategy to mobilize voters. For the first time since 1976, the state went Democratic in a presidential contest. Although Obama narrowly lost the state in 2012, turnout continued to be impressive, including an 80-percent participation rate among black voters, the second highest in the country.
Republicans clearly want to reverse North Carolina’s trend toward higher participation. But while their bill would be the most restrictive in the country, that doesn’t mean their success in stopping people from voting is assured. The idea, of course, is that the new rules would disadvantage Democrats at the polls, because they disproportionately impact groups that lean Democratic: minorities, women, young people, and low-income voters. According to the state’s own research, black North Carolinians are more likely to lack IDs than their white counterparts; they’re also likelier to take advantage of early voting.
Without a significant organizing force on the left, these measures could be devastating. But North Carolina has the South’s heartiest progressive movement—the one that pushed its enlightened voting laws in the first place, and the one that’s organized Moral Mondays protests at the state capitol since April, with thousands protesting and hundreds volunteering to be arrested in civil disobedience. As Rick Hasen, University of California-Irvine law professor and author of The Voting Wars, wrote on Wednesday at the Daily Beast, we’ve already seen versions of this dynamic play out in other states—and almost always, there’s been a backlash that has largely foiled the GOP’s intentions. Republicans in several states passed voting restrictions prior to 2012, but voters of color turned out as strongly as they had in 2008. Progressive organizers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania used the attempts to cut down early voting and implement voter ID laws as part of their organizing effort. Those voters targeted by these tactics got fired up rather than intimidated. Meanwhile, the courts also responded in a big way. When civil rights groups brought suits against the state laws, courts knocked down a number of new voting restrictions. In Ohio, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals forced the state to keep its early voting days; in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, state courts prevented voter ID laws from going into effect last November.
The North Carolina bill is especially challenging for voting rights activists, however, because it’s so multi-faceted. Individually, each of the provisions might only have a marginal impact on turnout, but put them together and advocates like Lieberman fear a “massive chilling effect” on voting.
Much of the bill will surely be challenged in court, but there are a lot of provisions to challenge. Similarly, the state’s well-organized progressives will use these elections tactics as a rallying cry. But the coalition will have to allocate resources between fighting in court and educating voters on the tons of new changes to voting in the state. Each prospective voter may need to know different things: how to get a proper ID, what days they can go to the polls, what to do when someone challenges their vote.
Barber, the leader of the coalition, is confident that between the courtroom and voter outrage, the laws will fail. “The more you try to take people’s liberties, the more people stand up,” he says.
It will help progressives that with such a sweeping bill, they won’t be the only North Carolinians who are outraged by it. Republicans will likely alienate many more than just the Democratic voters they’re targeting, because the things they’re repealing, like early voting days or same-day registration, make elections run better—and conservatives don’t like chaotic elections any better than anyone else.
In fact, many of the “liberal” election measures Republicans want to roll back—in North Carolina and elsewhere—began as bipartisan efforts. Republican attempts to roll back early voting are particularly ironic. It was actually lawmakers in conservative Texas who, in 1985, proposed that voters be allowed to cast ballots before Election Day. The initiative wasn’t controversial, let alone partisan; when it passed by overwhelming margins, newspapers barely considered the bill news. The idea was to make voting easier and, some hoped, increase turnout among those with inflexible work and child-care schedules who have trouble making it to the polls on Election Day.
Since Texas launched its program, 32 states, mostly in the South, Midwest, and West, have adopted similar measures, almost always with bipartisan support. Some states offer nearly a month of early voting, while others offer only a week. The practice has boosted turnout in some states by 2 percent to 4 percent, and it’s proved extremely popular with people who were already voting. Election officials have found that it also offers another benefit: Giving citizens more time to make their way to a polling place not only allows more flexibility, it decreases Election Day chaos.
Until the 2008 presidential election, Democrats and Republicans across the country were equally inclined to vote in person ahead of Election Day. The Obama campaign’s aggressive promotion of early voting changed that; in 2008 and 2012, it was used disproportionately by African Americans. That has triggered Republican suspicions and turned a reform endorsed by both conservatives and liberals into an object of GOP ire.
Cutting early voting certainly won’t do what Republican lawmakers claim: prevent voter fraud (which is practically nonexistent in the first place). The most experienced elections staff usually man the stations during early voting—providing, if anything, more security. Most election officials like having more days. The extended time cuts down on lines and confusion, with fewer people having to cast provisional ballots because of registration problems.
If the bill goes into effect for the 2014 mid-terms, conservatives and liberals alike will find themselves waiting in longer lines, with more administrative debacles. People are bound to get upset about it. In North Carolina, 57 percent of all voters cast ballots early in 2012. Polling shows only 23 percent of state residents support shortening the voting period.
Lawsuits are inevitable at both the state and federal level. While nothing is certain until the bill passes, civil rights lawyers will likely bring different types of cases—arguing the bill violates the ban on voting discrimination in the Voting Rights Act, arguing it violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, and arguing it violates North Carolina’s state constitution, which guarantees that “all elections be free” and that “Every person born in the United States and every person who has been naturalized, 18 years of age, and possessing the qualifications set out in this Article, shall be entitled to vote at any election by the people of the State, except as herein otherwise provided.”
Hasen says the state will find it particularly difficult to defend policies like the one to close polling places down even as people wait in line. “That would be a strong signal to courts that this is a provision designed to make it harder to vote,” he says.
Even if the North Carolina law (or parts of it) can withstand lawsuits, public outcry has forced Republicans to back down in other states when they’ve suppressed votes and made the process messier. Just ask Florida. Republican lawmakers in 2012 were determined to make voting more difficult and passed a slew of measures, including a decrease in early-voting days. The November election was a mess of long lines and addled officials. Obama still won, but Republican legislators and Governor Rick Scott—who staunchly supported the decrease and refused to extend early-voting hours in the face of extraordinary lines—had to face public outrage over their ill-conceived changes. When they reconvened in January, lawmakers immediately started restoring the reforms they’d taken away. Early-voting days are mostly back in place in Florida, and new, more convenient polling places will be opened. Not exactly the outcome Republicans had in mind.