Silenced voters deserve help
By Bob Hall and Isela Gutierrez
Democracy North Carolina
This week, a federal judge in Winston-Salem will begin considering whether the following voters should have their voices heard in elections:
* Mary, a 50-year-old, African-American Democrat, moved from Wisconsin back to her home county in eastern North Carolina in 2013. She applied for a driver’s license at the DMV office and said “Yes” when asked if she wanted to register to vote. But when she went to vote in 2014, her name was not on the voter roll. She showed her driver’s license to the elections officials but still couldn’t vote.
* Luke, a 25-year-old, white Republican, moved from Ohio to his new wife’s home in Pitt County. He got his license and registered to vote at the DMV in May 2014, but said he encountered “quite a hassle” at the early voting center that fall because “the paperwork wasn’t filed.” His ballot was rejected.
* Roberta, 40, black Democrat, went to the polling site where she voted in 2012, but the Wilson County elections official said she needed to go to a different poll. Since it was late, the official said she could use a provisional ballot that would count — but it didn’t.
* Stephen, 41, a white unaffiliated artist, lives in his downtown studio in Greensboro and is registered at that address. But officials at the polling place couldn’t find his name and didn’t know where to send him; his provisional ballot didn’t count.
All these voters — and thousands of others — were silenced in 2014 because of an anti-voter law enacted by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013. Among other changes, the law eliminates two safety provisions that once rescued voters with problems like those above.
The loss of these two features is at the heart of the case now before District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder.
One safety feature said a voter with a registration problem (Mary and Luke) could go to an early voting site, show their identification, register or re-register, and vote on the same day.
The second one said a registered voter in the wrong precinct on Election Day (Roberta and Stephen) could cast a provisional ballot that would count for the contests on the voter’s home precinct’s ballot.
These two safety features helped over 100,000 NC voters participate in each of the last two presidential elections. We estimate their elimination, with other changes enacted in 2013, disenfranchised at least 30,000 voters in 2014.
The victims include a Greensboro police officer and Wilmington student whose registrations with a civic group’s volunteer were not submitted; veterans in Asheville and Franklinton who returned from Afghanistan to learn they couldn’t vote because their registrations had been mysteriously canceled; and citizens we found in dozens of counties who thought, wrongly, that they had successfully registered through the DMV.
All these voters followed the rules — but they were silenced by bureaucratic glitches, inept DMV examiners, poorly trained registrars and poll workers, and bad laws that treat voting like a limited privilege, not a fundamental right.
The loss of safety procedures harms voters of every description, but especially African Americans and youth. That’s not an accident.
Republican strategist Jack Hawke, a former state GOP chair who guided Pat McCrory’s campaigns, analyzed his party’s defeat in 2008 in an essay that concluded, “The [Obama] campaign targeted the most likely straight-ticket voters and made sure they voted early. The number of black and young voters was unprecedented.” It’s easy to see how the partisan goal of winning became intertwined with a strategy to reduce the black and youth vote.
The sweeping 2013 law followed this script perfectly, although it was sold as a remedy for fraud. It cut back early voting and ended straight-ticket voting, same-day registration and voting, out-of-precinct voting and pre-registration for teenagers. In 2012, African Americans and youth age 18 to 25 made up 22 percent and 12 percent of the state’s registered voters, respectively, but they were 34 percent and 33 percent of those who used same-day registration. Of course, that means a lot of whites and Republicans are also affected, as collateral damage.
The truth is our election system is hobbled more by human error, especially at the DMV, than by voter fraud. We need the protections of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting to save honest citizens from being cheated out of the most basic right in our democratic republic.
In the names of Mary, Luke, Roberta, Stephen and maybe you some day, let’s hope the judge agrees.
Bob Hall is executive director and Isela Gutierrez is associate research director of Democracy North Carolina; their report, “Silenced Voters Sound the Alarm,” is at democracy-nc.org.