by Tom Anstrom
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. His win was driven in large part by support from minority voters and young voters. In 2008, Democrats also won the governor’s mansion, and Kay Hagan defeated incumbent Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole. In 2010 Republicans, backed by the national Tea Party wave and a wealthy financier, won control of the North Carolina General Assembly and immediately set to work redrawing the state’s district lines to make sure they could keep their advantage. The Republican redistricting efforts worked as planned. While Republican state Senate and state House candidates won by small margins statewide, with Republicans winning just 52.6% of the state Senate votes that were cast and 51.3% of state House votes, they were able to win a supermajority in both houses of the General Assembly.
2012 North Carolina State Senate Results
The lesson was clear; the best way for the GOP to control the state, which had become a presidential battleground with demographics that continue to favor Democrats, was to change the rules. The Supreme Court’s decision that effectively struck down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act gave North Carolina Republicans the perfect opportunity. Guy Charles, an expert on election law at Duke Law School, likened the Court’s decision to removing a speed bump on a busy road. Tom Apodaca, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said Republicans would put together an “omnibus bill with a lot of different election laws and changes in it.” He made good on his threat, and in late July North Carolina Republicans rammed through a 57-page election reform bill that has been called one of most restrictive voting bills in the country. When the bill passed the state House, Democrats simply stood, held hands and bowed their heads to express their opposition to the legislation. Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed the bill on August 12.
North Carolina Policy Watch summarized the bill which, among other changes such as moving up the state’s presidential primary, would:
- Cut early voting from 17 days to 10 days
- Eliminate straight ticket party voting
- End same-day registration during early voting
- Ban paid voter registration drives
- Prohibit localities from extending hours due to long lines
- End pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds
- Authorize expanded party appointed “poll observers” and make it easier for observers to challenge voters
- Increase the maximum campaign contribution in the state to $5000
- Weaken disclosure requirements for IE committees
The bill also includes one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. Voters will need to present a valid in-state DMV-issued driver’s license or state ID card, US Military ID card, veteran’s ID card or a US passport. Even IDs from state colleges will not be accepted. The voter ID restriction appears to hit African American voters, women and self-identified Democrats hardest. An April study by the state Board of Elections showed that 318,643 registered voters lack a photo ID, nearly 5% of the total voters in the state. Those voters were 34% African American (compared to just 23% of the registered voter population), 64% were women (compared to 54% of the registered voter population), and 55% of them were registered Democrats (compared to 43% of the total registered voter population). The New Republic’s Nate Cohn found that if voter ID requirements had been in place during the 2012 election, they would have cost President Obama 25,000 to 30,000 votes. The voter ID requirements won’t take effect until 2016, but the other parts of the bill take effect before the 2014 elections and could be even more damaging to Democrats.
Early voting was a key component of Democrats’ path to victory in the state in 2008. In 2012 Republicans made a serious effort to cut into the 305,054 vote margin President Obama built over John McCain in early voting in 2008. Obama was still able to build a 129,000 vote margin out of early voting in 2012 and won 51.9% of those who voted early. While Republicans managed to hold Obama’s margin down in early voting, Republican performance on Election Day actually dropped from winning 57.4% of the vote in 2008 to 55.5% of the vote in 2012, suggesting that rather than turning out new voters during the early vote, Republicans were just turning out the same voters. According to Catalist, over 1.3 million Democratic voters cast their ballots early in 2012, and just over 873,000 Republicans voted early. Data from the first seven days of early voting provided by Catalist and available on the Atlas Project Online Toolkit’s Absentee/Early Vote Reports module reveals numbers that are even more striking. During the first seven days Republican legislators are cutting from the early voting period, 458,258 Democrats used in-person early voting, while just 240,146 Republicans did so.
Catalist data also demonstrates the impact of the decision to end North Carolina’s late registration laws and close voter registration 25 days out from the election. According to Catalist, 128,589 North Carolinians registered between October 17, 2012, and Election Day. Of those, 45.5% registered as Democrats, 27.6% did not choose a party and only 26.0% registered as Republicans. 76.2% of those new registrants voted using One-Stop Early Voting, when people could register to vote and vote early in one trip.
The bill also ends straight-ticket voting, which could have a huge impact for Democrats down the ballot. In 2012 more than 1.4 million voters voted straight-ticket Democrat, while just 1.1 million voted straight ticket Republican. This disparity is particularly remarkable since straight-ticket voting in North Carolina does not apply to the Presidential vote. Gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton was at the top of the non-Presidential ticket for Democrats in 2012, and he lost by 11.4% to Republican Pat McCrory, winning just 1.9 million votes total.
North Carolina Republicans are doing all of this at the same time that their right-wing agenda has polluted their brand statewide. According to a July poll from PPP, Governor McCrory’s approval rating has collapsed to 40%, while Republican legislators have just a 35% approval rating and are losing by nine points to legislative Democrats on the generic ballot. An amazing 46% of registered voters say that the General Assembly is causing North Carolina national embarrassment. An August poll by PPP shows that the elections bill itself is overwhelmingly unpopular with North Carolina voters. Only 39% of voters in the state support the bill, compared to 50% who are opposed. Two of the most unpopular provisions include reducing the early voting period by one week (33/59) and removing straight ticket voting (21/68). The bill is deeply unpopular with African Americans (16/72) and women (32/54). Only 20% of self-described moderates support the bill while 70% of them oppose it. Some analysts believe the North Carolina elections bill was intentionally designed to be so extreme so that it could be a test case for what could survive in the courts. Given the legislature’s sinking poll numbers, it may simply be that state Republicans decided to proceed with their extreme measures regardless of electoral consequences.