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A Big Step Backward for North Carolina's Democracy

Damon L. Daniels

North Carolina lawmakers are dangerously constricting access to the ballot, torpedoing years of progressive expansion.

The spirit of North Carolina courses through my veins. A Tar Heel native, my first voting experience occurred in 2000, as a wide-eyed sophomore attending UNC Chapel Hill. Excited by the news that I was eligible to submit a ballot prior to Election Day, in between classes I went and did just that. I exited the voting booth proud for bucking the “youth don’t vote” trope. More importantly, I felt grateful for the convenience of early voting. Like many students, my schedule was tightly regimented between classes, labs and constant study; spare time was a luxury.

Thirteen years later, North Carolina lawmakers are dangerously constricting access to the ballot, torpedoing years of progressive expansion. On July 26, the General Assembly ratified House Bill 589, an omnibus election bill that in true kitchen-sink fashion features some of the most flagrantly draconian voting restrictions on record. The breadth and depth of these changes—if fully enacted—promise to marginalize wide swaths of North Carolina residents who have for years relied on the state’s affirmative voting provisions to have their voices heard.

The low-lights:

  • H589 eliminates Pre-Registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and Same Day Registration altogether;
  • Reduces the period for early voting (and in particular, weekend voting hours), and correspondingly, the number of early voting and satellite polling locations, while conversely setting forth a provision to maintain the aggregate number of voting hours of all voting sites in 2012, while limiting the majority of polling locations to County Boards of Elections offices;
  • Limits the range of acceptable voter identification for purposes of registration and voting;
  • Expands the likelihood that voters whose identification and residency are challenged will be forced to vote via provisional ballot (thereby severely decreasing the chances that such votes will actually count);
  • Increases the scope and frequency of voter roll purges.

H589 will negatively impact the entire state. Notwithstanding proponents' erroneous claims concerning voter fraud that serve as this measure's primary impetus, approximately 2.5 million early voters, including nearly 250,000 Same Day Registrants, are now officially conscripted to seek alternate paths to the ballot.

Taking into account the reduction of satellite polling locations, nearly three-fourths of North Carolina's 100 counties must now find new ways to compensate for the loss of more than 90% of operational voting time. These figures do not even include the additional time lost through the reduction of Early Voting days.

Voting and registration data from 2012 indicate that African Americans constituted a significant share of early voters—nearly half of the state's total African American voting-age population (and almost 30 percent of all early voters). African Americans also made heavy use of Same Day Registration (they constituted approximately 41 percent of all SDR voters), and were the lion's share of Sunday voters (affectionately nicknamed "Souls to the Polls"). Restricting these groups' access to vote carries implications that reverberate far beyond the voter fraud argument.

H589 does not represent the North Carolina I grew to love. It does not represent the beacon of progress that I first came to know in a breezy planetarium on that crisp autumn day in November when I first voted. It represents the very opposite. Rollbacks of effective voting practices such as pre registration, early voting and Same Day Registration spit in the face of the most fundamental principles of democratic sovereignty. H589 disenfranchises too many North Carolinians and puts my home state back on the wrong side of history.