News: CJ Exclusives

Experts See Election Reforms Having Little Effect On Turnout

Shorter early voting period could increase voter interest and intensity

Recent modifications to North Carolina’s election laws — including changes affecting voter identification, same-day registration, early voting, and absentee ballot applications — would have almost no effect on voter turnout, voting experts say.

One election watcher, Hans Von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, even suggested that the shorter early-voting period enacted by the Republican-led General Assembly actually may boost turnout.

After Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 589, legislative Republicans heralded the measure as one that would restore integrity to the election process. Democrats countered that the changes were unnecessary and levied charges of voter suppression during debate.

Even election observers on the left do not anticipate any major impacts on turnout. “It’s hard to gauge exactly,” said Michael McDonald, associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, who blogs for Huffington Post. “We’re probably talking about a cumulative effect [on voter turnout] of about 1 percent,” he said in telephone interview. (See Editor’s note at the end of this story.)

“It won’t have any effect on turnout,” countered Von Spakovsky from the conservative side. “Voter ID laws have shown that they don’t depress turnout.”

H.B. 589, which passed the General Assembly along party lines, made a number of changes in the state’s election law.

Beginning in 2016, North Carolina voters will be required to show a state-approved photo ID before being allowed to vote. Elections officials plan to begin informing voters of the requirement during primary and general elections next year.

Another change in election law eliminates same-day registration, a process allowing an unregistered voter to show up at an early voting site, register, and vote the same day. While proponents of the change worried that same-day registration could allow ineligible votes to be cast, the state’s recent experience with those voters showed little effect.

”Voters [using same-day registration] would vote a ‘retrievable ballot,’” said Kim Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections. Such a ballot could be removed from the count if elections officials found that the person was ineligible to vote before the elections canvass, the time local elections boards generally certify results. Local election boards verified each same-day voter’s eligibility by sending a letter to the address listed on the registration form.

But not all voters were verified by the canvass time, Strach said. “If you voted same-day the Saturday before the election, there’s not 15 days before the canvass,” Strach said.

Mail verification takes 15 to 60 days, with most registrants being verified within 15 days, according to a State Board of Elections report.

Following the 2010 general election, 153 of 21,742 of same-day registration voters — or 0.7 percent — were listed as inactive because the county was unable to verify the registrant’s address by mail.

Following the 2012 general election, 1,288 of 96,730 of same-day registration voters — or 1.3 percent — were listed as inactive for the same reason.

Another provision changes absentee voting. Previously, an absentee voter had to send a handwritten request for an absentee ballot or use a county board of elections absentee ballot request form.

Under the new law, requests must be made in writing on a State Board of Elections form. The form must be signed by the voter, a near relative, or a legal guardian.

The absentee ballot must be witnessed by two people or by a notary public. It can be mailed or delivered in person to the county board of elections, or to early voting sites during their operating hours.

Voters who are patients in hospitals can vote absentee, and get assistance from a near relative, guardian, or multipartisan group sponsored by the county board of elections. If such help isn’t available, others can assist the voter. But the new law excludes owners and employees of the facility, officeholders, candidates, and political party representatives from assisting patients in voting.

This change occurred following a CJ report on a severely disabled woman who was assisted in voting by workers at a group home in Roanoke Rapids last year. The woman’s parents, who are her legal guardians, say she has the cognitive ability of a 7-year-old.

The law also cuts the early-voting period from 17 days to 10, but requires local election boards to keep early voting sites open the same number of hours during the 10-day cycle that they maintained during the 17-day period.

Von Spakovsky said that long early voting periods actually could depress turnout rather than increase it. A lengthy early voting period “disperses the get-out-the-vote efforts,” he said. “When it’s spread over a couple of weeks, it’s not as concentrated,” and voters who aren’t highly motivated may choose not to cast ballots if the early voting period stretches too long.

“African-Americans disproportionately may be affected” by the changes in laws, McDonald said. “They disproportionately vote early and [use] same-day [registration].”

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.

Editor’s note: After this story was posted, McDonald contacted CJ, taking issue with being characterized as a liberal. He has published one item about North Carolina’s new election law on Huffington Post, which opens with the sentence, “Republicans are at it again, making it harder to vote,” and inferring that the new election law was intended to suppress minority voting turnout. CJ will allow readers to reach their own conclusions. He also said that a 1 percentage-point drop in voter turnout would amount to roughly 75,000 votes.