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North Carolina voting law fight spills into Senate race

North Carolina’s voting law could keep minorities from the polls this fall. Now, the fight over the law is becoming an issue in the state's pivotal Senate race.
Voters cast their ballots at Clayton Fire Station in downtown Clayton, N.C. on May 6, 2014.
Voters cast their ballots at Clayton Fire Station in downtown Clayton, N.C. on May 6, 2014.

If it stays in effect, North Carolina’s strict voting law could affect the state’s pivotal U.S. Senate race this fall by keeping Democratic-leaning groups from the polls. And now the fight over the measure is spilling into the campaign.

Lately, the law, which is being challenged in court, has become a weapon for both sides in the contest between Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, state Rep. Thom Tillis—a race that could determine which party controls the Senate after the midterm elections.

Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, was a major backer of the voting law, and he played a key role in getting it passed last summer. Now the Hagan campaign is seizing on that record—and aiming to contrast it with the incumbent’s support for expanding voting rights.

"Speaker Tillis passed this bill using voter fraud as a red herring,” Chris Hayden, a spokesman for Hagan, said via email. “While Kay is focused on eliminating barriers to the ballot box, Thom Tillis installed new barriers for North Carolinians while making political spending less transparent. Our campaign is building the biggest turnout operation North Carolina has ever seen for a Senate race, and part of that effort will be working to make sure voters aren't surprised by changes in election law."

For Hagan, the strategy is to use the law as a way to motivate minority voters to get to the polls. In past midterm elections, Democrats have fared poorly because non-white voters haven't turned out at the same rate as whites.

But the Tillis campaign thinks it, too, can get political mileage out of the issue.  

On a website created to attack Hagan, the campaign slams the senator for asking the U.S. Justice Department last year to file a suit challenging the law. The Tillis campaign calls Hagan’s request “an attempt to pander to fringe, far-left activists.”

The Justice Department ultimately did file suit against the law, along with a coalition of civil rights groups, alleging that it discriminates against blacks and Hispanics. In a hearing that began Monday, the law’s challengers asked a federal judge to put the law on hold until next year, when a full trial is scheduled to take place.

It’s not clear who’s likely to gain more from the fight over the law. Polls suggest the measure’s photo ID requirement, which won’t go into effect until 2016, is popular. That’s why Tillis and his campaign have kept their public comments on the law largely focused on the ID provision.

But the law did much more than require ID. It also cut early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, ended a popular pre-registration program for high-school students and required that votes cast in the wrong precinct be rejected, among other provisions.

A poll conducted last August, after a campaign by the Moral Monday movement to focus attention on those aspects of the law, found just 39% supported the measure, and 50% opposed it.

However the politics play out, there’s little doubt that if it's allowed to remain in force, the law itself will boost Tillis by making it harder for some Democratic constituencies, especially non-whites and students, from the polls. How large the effect will be is difficult to say. But Charles Stewart, a political scientist at MIT, testified at Monday’s hearing that had the law been in effect in 2012, “over 30,000 African-Americans who registered during the same-day registration period would have been unable to register during that period, almost 300,000 [black] early voters would have been shoehorned into more congested early voting and Election Day voting sites, and at least 2,000 African-American voters would have had their out-of-precinct votes left uncounted.”

Polls suggest a very close race between Hagan and Tillis—one in which African-American turnout could be crucial.