Lumina News file photo
Voters arrive at the Fran Russ Recreation Center, the polling place for Wrightsville Beach residents, on Nov. 5, 2013. The passage of H.B. 589 will bring new voting laws to North Carolina effective in November 2014.
Sweeping changes are coming to the voting booths in North Carolina, affecting everything from voter registration to absentee ballots, voter ID requirements and the method of voting in booths.
The changes, ushered in after the passage of H.B. 589 in July 2013, have courted controversy and drawn national attention to North Carolina, including a lawsuit filed against the state by the U.S. Department of Justice aimed at curtailing the voter ID portion of the law.
Still, with the current law set for enforcement by November 2014, voters can expect to see numerous changes to how they cast their ballots.
Most obvious will be the changes made to the voting booths. All electronic booths using touchscreen technology will be replaced with paper ballots, where voters physically fill in the ovals next to their preferred candidates. The measure — adopted as a way for voters to verify their ballots before casting them — is projected to cost $10.9 million to replace existing equipment, estimates provided in the bill stated.
Straight ticket voting, in which voters choose a single party on their ballot instead of individual candidates, has also been eliminated.
“The straight party vote does not benefit anybody, really,” said Sam Ibrahim, chairman of the New Hanover County Republican Party. “It would not be unreasonable for people to check who they’re voting for, and not just to press one button or check one box.”
Changes to the voter registration process, including the elimination of same-day voter registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-years-olds, have caused some to question the law’s integrity.
“Young people turned out overwhelmingly to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and again in 2012,” said Richard Poole, chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, who added that he believes younger voters are generally turning away from the Republican Party. “I believe this is a way to suppress votes that aren’t friendly to Republicans.”
Another controversial aspect of the law concerns voter identification requirements, which will go into effect in 2016. By 2016, all voters will be required to carry a state-issued photo ID. The bill estimates 203,352 to 316,643 registered N.C. voters are without identification. Some, including Poole, believe this portion of the law is a partisan effort designed to disenfranchise large, traditionally Democratic voting blocks.
“I think it’s aimed squarely at preventing young people, the elderly and minorities from voting,” said Poole, who cited a Dartmouth University study titled “Race, Shelby County, and the Voter Information Verification Act in North Carolina,” which notes the “law will have a disparate impact on minority political participation,” and is likely to disproportionately affect African American, youth and older voters.
“It’s purely a partisan, political [law], and you’re seeing it all across the country,” Poole said. “The claim is, ‘we’re preventing fraud,’ but there haven’t been any examples of fraud its proponents can show.”
From the perspective of Marvin McFadyen, director of the New Hanover County Board of Elections, “In the 15 years that I’ve been in this business, most of the situations I’ve seen when it comes to voting, registration, things of that nature, most of the issues I’ve seen are accidental, and not a fraudulent activity.”
When election laws have been changed in the past by a majority of Democrats, Ibrahim said, “there was a lot of ‘if it benefits me, I’m going to do it.’ If it benefits the process or adds integrity to the process, then they’re going to ignore it, or it’s not as relevant.”
Ibrahim contended that this is not the case with the latest changes to election law.
“It’s all about voter integrity,” Ibrahim said. “It’s all about making the voting process more valid. [This] is designed to help all of us, not just one specific group.”
Ibrahim noted that in Georgia, where similar voter ID laws were passed, voter turnout in minority groups actually increased in 2008, which he believes disproves Poole’s theory: the law will hamper voter turnout.
Absentee voting and early voting has also undergone several changes. The law has eliminated same-day voter registration during the early voting process, which has been reduced from a 17-day period to a 10-day period.
To be ready for the changes in November, McFadyen urged voters to be prepared with accurate and current documentation to avoid any potential difficulties.
“As long as the voter’s records and registration are current, the experience they will have is only going to be positive,” he said.