By: Andrew Pardue
In June 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 325, “The Uniform & Expanded Early Voting Act.” The bill mandated that all early voting locations in the state remain open from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. on all weekdays during the early voting period (in 2018, this period begins on October 17). The bill also requires that if one early voting site in a particular county is open on a Saturday or Sunday, then all sites in that county must be open on that day. And then North Carolina’s Democratic Governor vetoed the bill, which had been passed by a Republican legislature with the ostensible aim of expanding early voting hours statewide.
For casual observers of American politics, this outcome probably seems like a suspension of the laws of partisan physics. Why did it happen this way? Because in North Carolina, no change to state election laws occurs without controversy, and even the most innocuous legislation has cascading second-order effects.
In this case, a macro-level analysis indicates that the bill will probably achieve its stated purpose. A preliminary analysis from the North Carolina State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement estimates that early voting locations will be open for a cumulative 49,696 hours in 2018, almost doubling the 25,887 hours that polling stations were open in the last midterm election in 2014. However, this expansion of voting hours will not be evenly distributed statewide because the constraints imposed by this new legislation will likely force some counties to close some of their polling locations in order to fully comply. Some counties claimed that the changes would be expensive, with the director of elections in Burke County claiming that compliance would cost the county an additional $10,000. Many counties, particularly those in sparsely-populated rural areas with tight budgets, indicated that compliance with the new law would require them to reduce the total number of early voting stations offered in their jurisdiction. This is because the cost of manning each preexisting location for the increased number of hours is prohibitive, and the law does not allow counties to economize by staggering hours among different polling sites. Robert Inman, Director of the Haywood County Board of Elections in the western part of the state, summed up the problem: “It’s not simply, ‘Do you have the money to do this?’ but ‘Do I have the human beings necessary to fill these positions?’”
An analysis by ProPublica found that although polling locations might be open for a greater number of cumulative hours in 2018 than in 2014, there will be nearly 20 percent fewer early voting locations open statewide. Half of North Carolina counties expect to close polling places this year, most of them in rural areas that do not have the funds necessary to comply with the new law. In the statement he issued upon vetoing the bill, Governor Roy Cooper indicated that he believed the legislation was an attempt to “discriminate and manipulate the voting process.”
But based on recent election results, it is not at all clear that this move will disproportionately impact Democratic voters. While North Carolina does have a more substantial rural minority population than the average state, in recent years Democratic candidates have relied more on votes from the state’s urban areas. In the 2016 gubernatorial election, Cooper himself received 51.92% of his total votes from the eight most populous counties in the state (for comparison, his Republican opponent Gov. Pat McCrory only received 31.08% of his total vote from those same urban counties). As a matter of pure partisan politics, it is conceivable that this bill will increase opportunities for early voting among Democratic voters in urban areas while making early voting less convenient for Republican voters in rural counties.
Regardless, North Carolina will have a chance to analyze the electoral impact of Senate Bill 325 on November 6th: the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the bill into law over Gov. Cooper’s veto on June 27th.