It’s quite possible that the 2016 election will be decided by North Carolina. And according to early voting data, North Carolina may be decided by voter suppression.
Early turnout among black voters in the state has been running below 2008 and 2012 levels—so far, the bloc is turning out at only 82 percent of their 2012 numbers, as The New York Times reported. (Early voting overall was up in North Carolina, with 4.6 million ballots already cast.)
What the Times didn’t report was that the decline wasn’t due to lack of enthusiasm or effort, but voter suppression. In fact, there’s a near perfect fit between where black voters aren’t voting and where Republicans have made it harder to vote—a fact highlighted by a press release issued today by the state Republican Party, which called the decrease "encouraging."
The data crunchers over at insightus have demonstrated the correlation conclusively. During the first half of the early voting period, in the 58 “unimpaired counties” —i.e., those in which voting has not been made more difficult in the last four years—black people are turning out at 91 percent of their 2012 levels. In 17 “suppressed counties,” that number is 72 percent.
Hurricane Matthew, which flooded 32 counties, also affected turnout: There, blacks have voted at 79 percent of 2012 levels. But think about that for a moment: Turnout was higher in counties under a state of emergency than in counties with new voter suppression rules.
That’s not surprising when you consider how egregious North Carolina’s policies have been.
First, North Carolina passed HB 589, which eliminated early voting entirely, eliminated same-day registration, and set up onerous ID requirements. That law affected more than 1.2 million people: 900,000 people utilized early voting in 2012, 130,000 used same-day registration in 2008, and more than 200,000 registered voters don’t have driver’s licenses. By way of comparison, Barack Obama won the state by 15,000 votes in 2008, and Mitt Romney won by 117,000 in 2012.
In July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down HB 589, going out of its way to note the racist nature of the law. The state’s general assembly had “requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices,” wrote the court. And then, “Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.”
With HB 589 struck down in such damning terms, one might have thought that early voting would be fully restored. Instead, based on the earlier law that required “at least one” polling place open for early voting, Republican-controlled boards of elections in those 17 counties closed all but one early voting site per county. In other words, the barest legal minimum.
Not only has that created long lines at the polls, it’s also put early voting totally out of reach for people without the time or resources to travel long distances to vote. And in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte and has more than 15 percent of the state’s black voters, the Republican-controlled election commission cut early voting locations from 22 in 2012 to four this year.
Even that wasn’t enough, however.
In three counties, boards of elections canceled thousands of voter registrations based on outrageous rules that allow anyone to challenge another person’s voter registration based on a single piece of returned mail. In at least one of those counties, the mail campaign was itself organized by the secretary of the local Republican Party, N. Carol Wheeldon.
Wheeldon, incidentally, has ties to North Carolina’s conservative Voter Integrity Project, which after three years of pursuing allegations of fraud—including showing up unannounced on doorsteps and sending repeated mailings on which to challenge voters—has yet to uncover a single one. The Voter Integrity Project also recently accused Democrats of “raping the ‘Retard’ vote.”
Of the three counties, Cumberland County is 35 percent black, Moore County 13 percent, and Beaufort County 29 percent.
On Friday, a federal judge in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP enjoined those three counties from purging their voter rolls, which, the court said, violated the National Voting Registration Act. By the time the judge ruled, 3,951 registrations had been challenged in Cumberland County, 400 in Moore County (all by Wheeldon), and 138 in Beaufort County.
In one case, a 100-year-old African-American woman in Beauford County named Grace Bell Hardison had her registration challenged by the same method, and was unable to reinstate it because she could not come personally to a hearing. President Obama mentioned her in a speech.
Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and one of the most powerful speakers at the Democratic National Convention, said in a statement that “The NAACP is defending rights of all North Carolinians to participate in this election and we will not back down and allow this suppression to continue. This is our Selma.”
As we reported last February, North Carolina’s new voter restrictions were the strictest in the nation, except perhaps Texas, which is not yet a swing state. And the patterns are easy to discern.
First, the ban on early voting hit Democrats more than Republicans: In 2012, 48 percent of North Carolina’s early voters were registered Democrats and 32 percent were registered Republicans, an edge of 140,000 Democratic voters. The restrictions in the 17 affected counties are sure to have a similar impact.
Second, voter-ID laws hit people of color disproportionately. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 25 percent of black Americans lack a government-issued photo ID, compared to just 8 percent of whites. Low-income and elderly voters are also disproportionately affected.
Third, there’s the timing. Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told The Daily Beast that “Ten years ago there were zero states with a strict voter-ID law, and no states cutting back on early voting. All these laws started after the 2008 election, which saw record numbers of young voters and record participation by people of color. And then, as if by coincidence, we have all these laws passed—25 in 2011-12 alone—that disproportionately impact young people, people of color, and poor people. That is, to put it mildly, suspicious.”
Finally, the restrictions are chasing a “voter fraud” epidemic that—like Donald Trump’s claim that the entire election is rigged against him—simply has no evidence to support it. A detailed study by a Loyola University law professor found that between 2000 and 2014, there were indeed 31 reported instances of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. In other words, the odds of voter fraud are 1 in 32 million. By way of comparison, your odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 134,906.
In short, challenging voter registrations, requiring IDs, ending early voting, and other voter suppression methods don’t stop fraud—they stop voting, particularly by people of color.
That said, with the injunction issued Friday, most of North Carolina’s worst restrictions have now been lifted, and there is encouraging news that the efforts have backfired, inspiring non-white voters to turn out in record numbers in the state. Encouraging, that is, for Hillary Clinton. Perhaps a life-saver for American democracy itself.