In late March, lawmakers in the North Carolina Senate began debating a bill that would move up absentee ballot deadlines, forbid elections boards from accepting private donations for certain purposes and establish a fund to identify and assist voters needing a photo ID.
This bill, introduced by state Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican, seems relatively benign compared to the new election law Georgia just passed or to many being promoted by Republicans around the nation. More than 250 bills have been introduced in 43 states to restrict access to voting, according to a tally by the Brennan Center.
The controversial new Georgia law imposes new identification requirements for mail-in ballots, curtails the use of drop boxes, blocks the use of mobile voting vans, allows electors to challenge an unlimited number of voters and makes it a crime for third-party groups to hand out water of food to voters standing in line.
In fact, no bill that limits the ability of qualified voters to cast their ballots can be considered benign, unless it addresses an obvious source of voter fraud. And there’s no evidence of voter fraud in North Carolina’s 2020 election or anywhere in the nation.
State and federal elections officials and experts in the private sector declared the election “the most secure in American History,” despite claims to the contrary by defeated former President Donald Trump.
North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham Republican, told an interviewer in March that he expected “you’ll see some legislation” related to voting before the legislative session’s filing deadline. Berger wouldn’t give details, according to a WFAE report, except to say Republicans would try to limit the State Board of Elections’ ability to change voting rules.
But it seems unlikely that the Republican-controlled legislature will propose voter suppression bills as aggressive as some that have been introduced this year. One reason is that they don’t have enough votes to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The second is that it turns out their own voters were some of the biggest beneficiaries of reforms that make voting easier adopted in North Carolina over the past two decades—and from emergency measures added because of COVID-19.
In a joint commentary, Bob Hall and Rick Henderson wrote: “We are liberal and conservative leaders with decades of experience at policy organizations. We often disagree, but after looking at data from the 2020 election, we agree on this: North Carolina’s unique mix of procedures made voting easy and cheating hard, and helped produce a record turnout despite a deadly pandemic.” Hall is the former executive director of Democracy North Carolina. Henderson is former editor of the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal.
They determined that more Republicans than Democrats used same-day registration, more Republicans than Democrats successfully used provisional ballots because they were in the wrong precinct or had not updated their registration, and a bigger share of registered Republicans than Democrats voted on the last Saturday of early voting (a day legislators had cut but restored in 2020 with extra hours). They also found that expanded recruitment of poll workers and federal funding allowed counties to open larger voting places and helped Republicans vote safely in person and vastly outnumber Democrats.
Democrats dominated mail-in balloting, they determined, largely because President Trump vilified the practice. Still, 200,000 N.C. Republicans voted by mail, thanks in part to a “cure” process that let voters submit missing information to validate their eligibility.
That would suggest, in North Carolina at least, the restrictive bills Republicans are pushing around the nation would do as much harm their own party as to the Democratic Party, which makes it a risky and potentially counterproductive enterprise if the goal is to win elections.
That argument is bolstered by a recent poll by Carolina Forward, a grassroots policy organization, that shows majority support for automatic voter registration and for ending gerrymandering, the practice of gaining unfair advantage by manipulating the boundaries of election districts. The poll, published April 5, found 56 percent of North Carolinians strongly or somewhat support automatic voter registration for all eligible voters, 4 percent are unsure and 40 percent oppose it.
When it comes to ending gerrymandering, 65 percent agree and only 11 percent oppose. The remainder said they were unsure.
The nation just held the most secure election in its history, despite a raging pandemic. Republicans are being disingenuous when they claim that the new laws they’re pushing are intended to make elections more secure.
They are, instead, the latest iteration of poll taxes and literacy tests intended to disenfranchise Black and minority voters. As New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie has pointed out, reducing the number of polling places and forcing voters to stand in long lines functions as a poll tax.
But this time, such laws could backfire.
Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville., N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.