North Carolina’s restrictive new voting law was in effect for the first time in Tuesday’s primary election. And there were plenty of signs that the law could make it harder to cast a ballot for many in the Tar Heel State.
Tuesday’s off-year election wasn’t a good test of the law’s impact because turnout among Democrats—who are likely to be most affected by the restrictions—was tiny. Additionally, the law’s most high-profile provision, a photo ID requirement, won’t go into effect until 2016.
Still, there was ample cause for concern about the law's effect on future elections, when turnout will be higher. Two such races to keep an eye on include this fall’s U.S. Senate race, when Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, faces Republican Thom Tillis, and 2016, when Gov. Pat McCrory will stand for re-election, and the state figures to once again be a presidential battleground.
North Carolina’s voting law, passed by Republicans in 2013 and signed by McCrory, has been called the most restrictive in the country. In addition to the ID requirement, it cut early voting, eliminated same-day registration, and ended a popular pre-registration program for high school students. The law is being challenged under the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Justice Department and several civil rights groups, who allege that it discriminates against racial minorities.
The Vote Defender Project, a North Carolina-based voter protection group, monitored polling places in 36 counties across the state. Bryan Perlmutter, an organizer with the group, told msnbc his team saw two major problems: The law’s disqualification of votes cast in the wrong precinct caused major confusion; and the state’s campaign to inform voters at the polls about the coming ID requirement was carried out in a wildly inconsistent manner.
The ban on votes cast in the wrong precinct has flown relatively under the radar among the law’s provisions. Previously, if voters showed up at a precinct that wasn’t theirs, they could still cast a ballot that would count for federal and state races. Not anymore.
Perlmutter said many of his group’s volunteers spent much of their time Tuesday looking up voters’ precincts on the state Board of Elections website. Many voters, he said, went to the closest precinct after getting off work in the evening, something that wouldn’t have been a problem in past years.
The problem was especially acute on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone, Perlmutter said. Half of the students are assigned to one precinct and half to another whose polling place is about a mile away, without reliable transportation between the two.
“Some folks had to walk multiple miles to ensure their vote counted,” Perlmutter said. “What should have been a simple trip turned into a major inconvenience.”
But the state’s patchy effort to educate voters about the ID requirement may portend even more trouble ahead.
North Carolina officials had said in advance that election workers would be trained to ask voters whether they had photo ID, inform those who didn’t about the ID requirement coming in 2016, and tell them how they could get one. But according to surveys conducted by Vote Defenders, that often didn’t happen. Some precincts didn’t ask about ID at all, and others appear to have asked some voters but not others.
“It was really disappointing, and inadequate to what the state promised it was going do,” said Perlmutter. “It just didn’t happen.”
Perlmutter said the state isn’t spending enough money to ensure that all North Carolinians understand the changes — allocating just over $1 million to a public relations campaign. Nor has it done enough of the on-the-ground training necessary to ensure that local election officials and poll workers know how to talk to voters about the law.
“The infrastructure to implement this new law is completely lacking,” Perlmutter said.