The U.S. Supreme Court has lifted the block on North Carolina’s election-law changes for the 2014 campaign. It was a dramatic end to months of dire warnings, raucous debate, and courtroom machinations.
Although the 2013 law’s photo ID requirement won’t be in effect until 2016, Democrats fear that other changes going into effect this cycle — such as confining early voting to 10 days rather than 17 and requiring Election-Day voters to cast ballots in their assigned precincts rather than casting provisional ballots elsewhere — will depress turnout among Democratic-leaning constituencies. It is also possible that some Republicans hope these changes will reduce turnout among Democrats. Many certainly believe that the changes will deter fraudulent voting. If voter fraud is widespread, then deterring it would clearly result in lower measured turnout.
Based on the best-available empirical evidence, however, neither side is correct. With one exception, none of the changes to North Carolina election laws will likely affect voter turnout to any perceptible degree.
The biggest change to the process was in early voting. But the change largely involved restructuring the calendar, not limiting the ability to cast ballots early. Although the period is now shorter, the law required county officials to provide roughly the same number of hours of early voting as in previous elections. That’s what happened. There are more voting sites than even before, and many are open at more-convenient times. If you wish to vote on a day other than Election Day, it is still easier to do so in North Carolina than in most other states, despite all the “voter suppression” talk.
There’s a more fundamental flaw in the warnings of the worrywarts, however: the assumption that early voting increases overall voter participation. That’s not what the evidence shows. Since 2005, academics have published numerous peer-reviewed studies of early voting. Nearly all of them found no discernible effect on turnout. One that did find an effect, a 2014 study for the American Journal of Political Science, showed a negative one. The authors theorized that the convenience of early voting, exercised largely by people already destined to cast ballots, was offset by the extent to which it deemphasizes the significance of Election Day, resulting in less enthusiasm among voters with only a modest interest in politics.
This is not an argument against early voting. Convenience is a real benefit. I’ve used early voting in the past, and appreciated it. This is, however, an argument for weighing the costs and benefits dispassionately. Offering 10 days of extensive early voting at many sites open late is a better use of tax dollars than offering 17 days at fewer sites with more limited hours, it seems to me.
What about out-of-precinct voting on Election Day? The problem with predicting large-scale effects from banning this practice is that few North Carolinians use it in the first place. In 2012, about 6,800 voters statewide showed up at the wrong precinct and cast valid provisional ballots. In doing so, they actually lost some of their ability to vote. If these voters had been redirected to their home precinct instead, they would have been handed the correct ballot — the one that included all the federal, state, and local elections in which they were entitled to vote.
I mentioned there was one change in North Carolina’s election laws that could curtail turnout somewhat. That would be the end of same-day voter registration during early voting. Few states allows it, because of the risk of individuals signing up and casting ballots even though they are not legal residents of the jurisdiction in question. This has actually happened in North Carolina, most recently in a municipal election in the Robeson County town of Pembroke. Illegal or questionable votes were so numerous that the State Board of Elections ordered a new election.
Still, there is at least some evidence that turnout is higher in places that allow same-day registration for early voting. When the North Carolina case is actually argued in federal court next year, I assume the plaintiffs will say that the benefits are worth risking a recurrence of what happened in Robeson County.
In the meantime, don’t expect North Carolina’s election-law changes to have a decisive effect on the 2014 elections. The candidates, campaigns, and overall political and economic climate will determine the outcome — as usual.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.