North Carolina voters received some good news on Wednesday, as Governor Cooper signed into law a bill that restores early voting on the Saturday before an election, amid other changes. The bill previously passed both houses of the legislature almost unanimously.
The legislation includes some other beneficial changes, including shoring up election security after the absentee ballot scandal in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District last year, which canceled that election’s results. It also slightly modifies the hours early voting sites are required to operate.
Although this bill is promising, it fails to make early voting as easy and accessible as it could be and, in fact, once was. The legislature should loosen restrictions on early voting sites and allocate more funding to expand their operation, in order to make sure that all North Carolinians can exercise their right to vote.
The changes mark a reversal from 2018, when legislation was passed over the governor’s veto that removed last-Saturday early voting for the 2020 election. This development also follows a lawsuit filed a few weeks ago by Democrats which aimed to overturn the 2018 legislation, which also placed new restrictions on early voting sites.
One restriction required all polling places to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which caused many smaller counties with limited resources to close several polling locations. This increases the average distance a voter must travel to vote, which decreases their likelihood of doing so, regardless of what hours the polling station operates, according to a political scientist interviewed by NPR.
The law also required that counties open all early voting sites on weekends, or keep all of them closed, which again effectively limits the capacity for rural counties to meet their voters’ needs. Any voters who aren’t discouraged from voting altogether by the limited early voting access will likely end up voting on election day, since all voting locations will be open at that time. This contributes to longer lines and further discourages voting.
The 2018 law isn’t the first time the state legislature tried to cut back on early voting. In 2013, just after a Supreme Court case overturned part of the Voting Rights Act, the legislature passed a law with a host of voting obstacles. In a 2016 ruling overturning this law, a U.S. appeals court found the law to be crafted with “almost surgical precision” to discriminate against black voters.
Based on racial voting data requested by the legislature in the lead-up to its creation, the law required voter ID, and specifically did not accept IDs likely to be carried by African-Americans. It also removed the first week of early voting which, unsurprisingly, was disproportionately favored by African-Americans for casting their ballots. Finally, it limited same-day registration, provisional voting, and voter pre-registration at 16 or 17 years of age.
These changes were designed to make it harder to vote, and specifically to make it harder to vote for our state’s historically disenfranchised African-American voters. Although the law was nullified by the court’s ruling, pieces of it continue to make their way into North Carolina’s elections, as seen by the 2018 law. This also includes a constitutional amendment, also passed in 2018, which revived the voter ID requirement.
The General Assembly must move to alter the way early voting is conducted, to ensure that people have maximum access to the ballot box, especially those with jobs that make it hard to vote on election day. Anything else amounts to disenfranchisement of the state’s most vulnerable citizens -- the ones who need their voices heard most of all.