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Column: Missing voters are suddenly reappearing

By Bob Hall
For the Salisbury Post
Here’s an exciting ó and possibly shocking ó thought: What if the young adults who typically don’t vote in North Carolina show up for the May
presidential primary?
Other voters might be surprised to see so many young people ó and frustrated by the long lines that could result if election officials don’t
plan now for the high turnout.
If the process works well, a blockbuster presidential primary could change the political life of a generation of North Carolinians. The experience of participating in a watershed election could turn spectator cynics into engaged citizens for decades to come.
In fact, research shows that if a person doesn’t vote by age 30, that person will likely never vote. And right now, we have an astonishing number of civic dropouts in our state.
A new analysis by the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina reveals that at least 2.5 million North Carolinians ó two out of every five adult citizens ó have not cast a ballot in the past eight years.
About 1 million citizens are not even registered to vote, and another 1.6 million are registered but just never show up. They didn’t vote in the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections or anytime else.
Two of the largest groups of missing voters ó 660,000 African Americans and 760,000 young adults age 18 to 24 ó could be especially energized to participate in the May 6 presidential primary, if the pattern of other primary states holds true.
The county-by-county data assembled by Democracy North Carolina (see www.democracy-nc.org), shows that in some counties, including Hoke, Robeson, Duplin and Harnett, well over half the adults have not voted in a single election since at least 1999.
Rowan County has at least 46,000 eligible but missing voters. Cabarrus County has 55,000 citizens who could become first-time voters; Davidson County has 53,000. The combined count in Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford counties exceeds 600,000.
With that many possible first-time voters, some election officials are bracing for a record turnout.
“If the current trends continue, and all indications are that they will, North Carolina could easily exceed the normal range of 16 percent to 31 percent turnout [of registered voters] in the primary election and possibly exceed a 50 percent turnout [especially in Democratic primary],” Gary Bartlett, the head of the State Board of Elections, told county election officials in a memo earlier this month.
Bartlett’s memo announced two grant programs to help counties open additional One-Stop Early Voting sites for the primary from April 17 to May 3. Later, he told reporters that about 64,000 people have registered to vote in the first six weeks of 2008, indicating a surge in voter interest.
Thirty percent of the new registrants are under age 25.
By providing financial support to open more Early Voting sites, the State Board of Elections is demonstrating commendable leadership ó exactly what we need from a responsive public agency. Now it’s up to local election officials to demonstrate similar leadership. By adding more sites with weekend hours and ample parking, and publicizing their location, election officials can relieve the stress on polling places on Election Day.
Election administrators in Wake and Durham counties are now planning for at least twice as many sites as they originally thought necessary.
Kudos to them! Mecklenburg, Guilford and Buncombe counties will have at least 10 sites each. But many officials have yet to add new sites.
There’s another reason why adding more Early Voting sites is crucial for this primary.
Young voters are especially likely to get interested in the election in the final three weeks of the campaign. But it will be too late for them to register using the regular method. The normal deadline to submit a registration application is 25 days before the May 6 election.
However, under a new state law, citizens who miss that deadline can go to an Early Voting site, show a current ID, fill out a registration form, and vote, all at the same time. “Same-Day Registration” can be used only during the Early Voting period, not on Election Day itself.
That means every Early Voting site will be an in-take center for new voters. One line, staffed by the best election workers, can accommodate people using Same-Day Registration, while other lines can process voters who are already registered.
Handled right, the experience can work well for everyone. North Carolina can boast about its record turnout, and we will move closer to a representative democracy of the people, for the people and by the people.
– – –
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan research and advocacy center based in Durham. The report on missing voters is available at www. democracy-nc.org.

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