National Republicans have been talking a good game lately about reaching out to minorities, but the GOP is pursuing a very different strategy on the state level. Republicans around the country are pushing a fresh wave of voting restrictions that figure to keep blacks, Hispanics and other Democratic leaning groups from the polls--and North Carolina just became ground zero for that effort.
In the last week, Republican lawmakers in the Tar Heel State have introduced a huge raft of new measures that make voting more difficult. If they go into effect—and because the state is controlled entirely by the GOP, they’re likely to—here’s what would happen:
- A government-issued photo ID would be required to vote.
- A full week of the state’s early voting period would be eliminated.
- Same-day voter registration during the early voting period would also be scrapped.
- All Sunday voting would likewise be banned.
- Poll watchers looking for voter fraud (like those trained by the Tea Party group True the Vote) would be able to move around more freely inside polling places, making it easier for harassment and intimidation of voters and poll workers to occur.
- Felons would have to wait five years before getting their right to vote restored. The move also would have to be approved unanimously by their county board of elections.
- Voters deemed “mentally incompetent” would be barred from voting.
- Parents would lose a tax credit worth $2500 if their child registers to vote at a different address. The effect would be to force college students—who, like minorities, tend to vote Democratic—to return to their parents’ towns to vote, or cost their families money.
Of course, North Carolina is not alone. Just since the start of the year, at least 75 restrictive voting bills have been introduced across the country, according to a Brennan Center analysis. But the state's effort may be the most extensive and far-reaching.
“Our legislators, and [North Carolina] Governor [Pat] McCrory, if he goes along with it, are acting like the George Wallaces of the 21st century," Rev. William Barber III, the president of the state's NAACP chapter, said in a statement. "They are placing themselves on the scandalous side of history, on the side of those who have continually tried through the years to restrict democracy."
State Sen. Bill Cook, who was the chief sponsor of bills to reduce early voting and to penalize students who vote on campus and co-sponsored several of the others, couldn’t resist bragging about the attention his effort has been getting.
“Somebody on Rush Radio liked my bill,” he told msnbc in an interview Thursday afternoon. “I must have hit the big time.”
Cook said it made sense to scrap the second week of early voting, because based on his experience, “when I stood outside the Board of Elections” during early voting, most early voters turn out either during the first week or during the final few days before the election, rather than during the middle week.
“From an efficiency point of view, it’s hard to keep [poll workers] working so hard,” said Cook, who launched his political career in 2010 with major backing from Art Pope, the mega-donor who sits on the board of the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity, and has backed an array of conservative causes in the state.
But the numbers don’t bear that out. According to figures provided to msnbc by Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and an expert on early voting, North Carolinians cast more than 1 million in-person votes during the second week of early voting, more than were cast during the first week.
Asked whether he might be willing to modify the early voting cutback if it turned out that a significant number of voters do use the period at issue, Cook said yes.
“Certainly I would consider that,” he said. “But this proposal I think is a good one, and I think folks who are concerned with the efficiency of our voting would agree with me.”
It’s also clear from the numbers and from other data that the changes would fall hardest on minorities. African-Americans are more likely than whites to vote early: Last year, according to McDonald’s figures, they made up 29% of all early voters in North Carolina , compared to 23% of the electorate as a whole. As for Sunday voting, over 61,000 votes were cast last year on the two Sundays available for early in-person voting, of which just over 24,000, or 39%, were cast by African-Americans (see chart below), often in “Souls to the Polls” drive which take place after church. And of course, a wealth of evidence shows minorities are more likely than whites to lack a government-issued ID. More than 600,000 people in the state lack such an ID, one third of whom are black, Asian, or American Indian, according to the state Board of Election's own numbers.
Nor is voter fraud a significant problem in the state. Keesha Gaskins of the Brennan Center testified last month that in the last 12 years, there's been only one case of voter impersonation in North Carolina, among 21 million votes cast.
Twenty-four of the state’s 100 counties are covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which means the federal government or the courts would have to approve the changes before they go into effect. Based on other recent cases, there’s a good chance that many of the measures—including the photo ID law—could be blocked in those areas. But in a decision expected in June, the Supreme Court could strike down Section 5 as unconstitutional.
Cook framed his bills as an attempt to increase confidence in the election system: “A lot of folks around here are concerned about the integrity of the voting system. “We’ve got to make sure that people believe the system is working.”
But to those on the receiving end, the crackdown on voting is having the opposite effect. Barber called the voter ID bill "a new tax on voting," adding that the measure "is designed to suppress voting by people of color, the elderly, students and other voters who are the least likely to have driver’s license or other forms of state-issued photo ID."