Liberals are desperate to prove that North Carolina’s new election law constitutes the second coming of Jim Crow-era voter suppression. Their desperation reflects three desires.
First, they want to win a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, which included provisions that changed the early-voting calendar, ended the practice of registering and voting on the same day, required that voters cast their ballots in their own precincts, and (by 2016) instituted a photo ID requirement in order to vote.
The Left’s second desire is to challenge the policy decisions of the Republican-led General Assembly not in civil court but in the court of public opinion, by arguing that they are fruits of a poisoned tree (that is, voter suppression). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many liberals want to pretend they are refighting the movement for civil rights. It makes them feel noble and powerful.
I suspect they’ll need to find another means of self-glorification, however, because the “voter suppression” bandwagon just lost another wheel. Even before the 2014 midterms, when most of the new rules took effect for the first time, there was ample reason to believe that North Carolina electoral participation wouldn’t be much affected by the changes. Statistical correlations between, say, the number of days of early voting and voter turnout are hard to come by.
Now that the state board of elections has released the latest turnout data, the Left’s weak argument has become a nonsensical one. In North Carolina, voter participation was higher in 2014 than it was in 2010, the last midterm election. More than 2.9 million voted this year, accounting for 44.3 percent of registered voters. In 2010, 43.3 percent of registered voters turned out.
Because voter registration rates are higher than they used to be, you can’t meaningfully compare current turnout rates among registered voters to those from elections back in time. The relevant statistic to use is turnout as a percentage of the voting-aged population. Using the new board of elections data and population estimates from University of Florida scholar Michael McDonald, I found that North Carolina’s turnout was 38.2 percent of the voting-aged population in 2014 — the second-highest rate of vote participation in a midterm election since the advent of true two-party competition in North Carolina in the early 1970s (before that time, general-election turnouts were sometimes weak because the real action was in the spring Democratic primary).
Not only did voter participation rise rather than fall this year, but it also changed in ways that might have been expected to benefit Democratic candidates rather than damage them. Black voters, the vast majority of whom vote reliably Democratic, made up 21.4 percent of the electorate in 2014, up from 20.1 percent in 2010. Young voters, also disproportionately Democratic, also voted at higher rates this year than they did four years ago.
Obviously there is no sure way to tell how many more North Carolinians might have voted in 2014 under the old rules but were deterred from voting under the new ones. (The folks at Democracy North Carolina took a stab at it a couple of weeks ago but risibly assumed what they were claiming to prove, by using 2010 data for out-of-precinct votes and same-day registrations as baseline estimates for 2014.) Given the paucity of empirical support for the Left’s claims from the electoral experiences of other states, however, I think it is reasonable to draw the following conclusions from the available data.
There was no significant “voter suppression” in 2014. The vast majority of voters who wanted to vote cast their ballots without incident. Voter participation rose, especially among those groups supposedly suppressed. To compress the early voting calendar by offering more sites and hours during fewer days appears to have, if anything, increased the rate at which North Carolinians used early voting. And to the extent some voters were confused or frustrated by the new rules, elections officials and voter-education groups seem to have done a good job answering questions and addressing concerns.
In a rational world, the experience of actual voters in 2014 would settle the question. Unfortunately, we do not reside there.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.