Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
So far, polling numbers from North Carolina are surprisingly low. What’s going on?
It’s been a full week since early voting began in North Carolina. The state has been in the spotlight throughout the campaign season for its massive Moral Monday demonstrations and controversial anti-LGBTQ bathroom bills. It’s also notorious for passing an extremely restrictive voter ID law and gerrymandering its districts to create apartheid-like voting conditions . Some thought that North Carolina’s hard-right turn from 2010 to 2014 would rouse voters most heavily burdened by the conservative measures mentioned above. So far, that hasn’t been the case, according to polling statistics analyzed by the North Carolina-based data group insightus.
Voter turnout for African Americans in North Carolina is currently well below what it was at the end of the first week of early voting in 2012. White voters, meanwhile (and Republican white voters especially) have been outperforming their 2012 turnout rates. There are many possible explanations for this, says William Busa, insightus’ president and founder, but the data doesn’t favor any single one.
“Are some voters left feeling a little leery by the loose talk of ‘poll watchers’ in ‘certain areas?” asks Busa. “Are there other, more subtle, voter suppression effects at work? Or is it just that 2012 offered voters a black candidate to vote for, and 2016 doesn't? Perhaps some combination of all of the above?”
One of those “subtle voter suppression” effects can be found in the roughly dozen-and-a-half counties that each decided to make only one polling location available for the first week of early voting (October 20-27). Voter turnout rates in those counties, which Busa refers to as “rogues,” have been well below turnout figures in 2012’s first week of early voting. Guilford County, for example, had 16 polling places in 2012; last week, it had only one. Four of the state’s ten largest counties, with the largest African-American populations in the state, all elected to open just one polling place for the first week of early voting. And all of those “rogue” counties have suffered from low voter turnout.
Another likely barrier for black voters: Hurricane Matthew, which slammed North Carolina’s eastern coast cities in early October, displacing thousands and compromising their access to voter registration. Writes Busa about this on the insightus blog:
North Carolina’s African American population slopes from high in the east (a legacy of that region’s sprawling antebellum plantations) to very low in the west, and that accident of history placed large numbers of black and poor voters in harm’s way from the destructive flooding following Hurricane Matthew, from which the region is still recovering. The 31 eastern counties under federal disaster declaration at this time are home to 440,000 black voters – 30% of all registered African Americans in the state. This seems the most likely explanation for the profound decline in black voting we’ve seen so far this year (just 82% of 2012’s performance to date). And, in turn, this goes a long way toward explaining Democrats’ relatively poor performance so far, given that African Americans account for about 45% of all Democrats in North Carolina.
For African Americans, North Carolina voter landscape was already troubled, well before the hurricane. Black voters had been targeted by North Carolina’s extremely restrictive photo voter ID law, which Republicans passed in 2013. African Americans are less likely than white voters to possess the types of photo ID that were allowed for voting purposes. The law also truncated the time period for early voting—a voting method that black voters relied on more heavily than white voters. However, a federal court struck down this law down in July for possibly intentionally discriminating against African Americans.
With that law overturned, the early voting time period was restored and voters do not have to show photo ID. But not all county supervisors have been complying fully—hence the maneuver to reduce polling places during the first week of early voting.
Meanwhile, other complications have surfaced for black voters since the election started. Just today, the lawyers representing the North Carolina NAACP sued the state over its purging of thousands of voters from the rolls so close to Election Day. “The Tar Heel state is ground zero in the intentional surgical efforts by Republicans … to suppress the vote of voters,” NC NAACP president Rev. William Barber said in a statement.
And it’s not just black voter performance that’s down. According to insightus, women voters—and Democratic women voters in particular—have also not been turning out at 2012 rates—a surprising finding given that the current options include Hillary Clinton, the first major-party woman presidential candidate, and Donald Trump, who’s been accused of a medley of inappropriate actions and remarks towards women.
Overall voter turnout has started ticking up in the second week of early voting, according to insightus, but Republican voters are still outperforming Democratic voters.
“The statewide picture is complicated by those counties that cut back dramatically to just a single [polling] site per county for week one,” Busa says. “As expected, those counties' numbers are way down so far. How that will impact waiting lines and turnout in week two, when every county finally has its full complement of sites open, remains to be seen.”