Turnout in the Nov. 4 midterm election appeared to rebuff claims that the sweeping 2013 election reform law passed by the General Assembly led to voter suppression.
More than 2.9 million North Carolinians went to the polls during the 10 days of early voting and election day on Nov. 4, more than any other midterm election in the state’s history. That’s 44 percent of North Carolinians registered to vote. It’s also 38 percent of North Carolina’s voting age population of nearly 7.7 million.
“The voter law at least to this point has very little impact on voter turnout,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh.
The 38 percent voting-age turnout is higher than the turnout in the last midterm election — 37.4 percent in 2010 — and is the second-highest in the state dating to 1974, the first competitive two-party election of the modern era. The highest was 41.2 percent in 1990.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, and leader of the Moral Monday protests opposing actions taken by the GOP-controlled General Assembly, said the new election law may have inflated the margin of victory for GOP Sen.-elect Thom Tillis over Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan.
Barber specifically referenced provisions curtailing the number of early voting days, the elimination of same-day registration during early voting, and disallowing out-of-precinct voting.
Barber did not respond to a request for a comment on the turnout numbers.
McLennan said the law didn’t have a big impact this year.
“If you look at early voting as a component of the overall voter turnout, that was pretty robust,” McLennan said.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who studies voter turnout across the nation, said reducing the number of early voting days from 17 to 10 did not appear to suppress early voting.
“You’re actually expanding access when more people are interested,” McDonald said, noting that there were more early voting sites and sites were open longer hours during the period.
Ballots cast during the early voting period increased by 20 percent this year over the 2010 midterm election, according to numbers from the State Board of Elections.
Analysts caution against making too many assumptions regarding the law based on this year’s midterm election. “We’ll just have to see where all this is going when we get to 2016,” McDonald said.
One of the primary parts of the election law has yet to take effect. A requirement for voters to provide a state-sanctioned voter identification document at the polls will be required in 2016.
McDonald noted that while North Carolina’s turnout increased from 2010, it was still below that of other states, including Iowa and Colorado, which had turnout rates topping 50 percent. McDonald suggested that with the competitiveness of the U.S. Senate race, the turnout should have been higher.
“Iowa and Colorado both have same-day registration,” McDonald said, suggesting that restoring that provision would help boost the state’s turnout. He also suggested that not allowing out-of-precinct voting could have had a negative effect on North Carolina’s turnout numbers.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who co-chairs the House Elections Committee and helped author the new election law, said lawmakers eliminated the same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting provisions in the election law to protect the integrity of elections.
Noting that North Carolina residents can register to vote until 25 days before an election, Lewis said, “If we do not have a 25-day cutoff, there’s no way we can verify that the person is who they say they are before the vote is counted.”
Lewis said that under the previous same-day-registration law, the votes of thousands of people who voted under that provision were counted, but those voters later were moved to the inactive voter list because their addresses couldn’t be verified.
“I completely reject the idea that requiring the person to register to vote 25 days before the election discourages turnout” among legal voters, Lewis said.
Lewis also said that out-of-precinct voting was a form of disenfranchisement, since those voting in another precinct would not have their votes counted in all races.
“You would think you would want to show up at your actual precinct and vote for all the offices you’re eligible to vote for,” Lewis said. He also noted that voters have other options, such as no-excuse absentee balloting by mail and early voting.
“The right to vote is too important to allow someone’s vote to be diluted by someone who might not be eligible to vote,” Lewis said.
Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.