North Carolina ranks high on anyone’s short list of today’s too-close-to-call battleground states. But the relative strengths of the two parties’ campaigns may, in the end, prove less important in determining November’s outcome than could the state’s new voter suppression laws — or, alternatively, the growing movement to defeat those laws with one simple piece of paper.
North Carolina’s electorate is balanced on a razor’s edge, as the results of the last two presidential election cycles demonstrate. Thanks to strong African American turnout, the Obama/Biden ticket took the state by 14,000 votes (one-third of a percentage point) in 2008. But that same ticket lost in 2012, by two points, when blacks, college-age voters, and Democrats in general posted modestly lower turnout numbers.
NC Republicans’ new voter suppression laws — widely regarded as the worst in the nation — now aim to insure against defeats like that which the new ruling party last suffered in 2008, by making voting more difficult, or even impossible, for demographic groups which do not traditionally vote their way.
But we can stop that.
2012 was also the year in which Pat McCrory (R) succeeded Bev Perdue (D) as governor of North Carolina, joining forces with a General Assembly already under Republican control to unleash a flood of initiatives aimed at securing Republicans’ ongoing dominance. Not surprisingly, those voter suppression efforts targeted the two groups (blacks and youth) which were most responsible for the party’s 2008 loss. Districts were racially gerrymandered; voter registration at state public assistance offices was brought to a halt; the nation’s most onerous voter ID requirement was imposed; polling places were removed from college campuses and moved farther away from communities of color; the early voting period was cut in half; and pre-registration of 16 and 17 year-olds was put to an end. Finally, election-day voter registration and registration updating — the safety net which previously protected would-be voters against bureaucratic snafus that are discovered only at the last moment — was halted.
Legal challenges to this systematic program of voter suppression, led by voting rights organizations and the U.S. Department of Justice, are today moving slowly through federal courts, having just lost at the District Court level and headed now to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (and from there, undoubtedly, to the Supreme Court). But it’s anyone’s guess whether justice can be achieved in time for the November election.
Amid the ongoing sturm und drang of court battles and street protests, too little discussion has been devoted to how at-risk voters can, individually, today, opt-out of voter suppression — simply by completing a request for an absentee ballot and emailing or snail-mailing it to their county Board of Elections.
“Opting out” of voter suppression sounds to good to be true...but it isn’t. In North Carolina, as in some other states, absentee voting by mail overcomes all of these voter suppression hurdles:
Long lines at polling places that are inconveniently far away:vote on your own schedule, in the comfort of your own home. Just make sure your county Board of Elections receives your completed ballot by return mail no later than 5:00 p.m. on November 1, 2016.
Registration problems: Perhaps you, like many others, have forgotten to update your voter registration after moving to a new address. If you first discover this at your polling place on Election Day, you’re out of luck: you’re disenfranchised for this election. But, in North Carolina, a request for an absentee ballot is also (by law) a voter registration update. If the new address you provide on your absentee ballot request form doesn’t match your currently registered address, the Board of Elections will automatically update your registration.
Ban on out-of-precinct voting: You can’t accidentally show up at the wrong polling place if you’re voting at home, now can you?
Voter ID: This one is critically important. Despite North Carolina’s draconian new voter ID law, no voter ID is required to vote absentee by mail. No photo ID? No problem: you need only provide the last four digits of your Social Security number on your ballot request form.
That last, important point — that voting absentee by mail eliminates the requirement to present a government-issued photo ID — might seem like an astonishing oversight on NC Republicans’ part...but it’s a feature, not a bug; an exclusion intentionally built into the state’s voter suppression laws. The two graphs below illustrate why that is:because absentee voting by mail is, today, the nearly exclusive prerogative of elderly white voters (a reliably Republican demographic). Whites are nearly three times more likely than blacks and Latinos to vote absentee by mail in presidential election years, and the elderly are up to ten times more likely to do so than are young and middle-aged voters.
If you’re not already familiar with the process, voting absentee when you’re not really ‘absent’ may feel a bit dodgy...but it shouldn’t. North Carolina, like twenty-six others, is a ‘no excuse’ state: a voter is not required to offer any reason for voting an absentee ballot. You can vote absentee by mailat home because you find it more convenient, or because you lack an acceptable photo ID, or to avoid the glares of hostile partisan ‘poll monitors,’ or simply to dramatically minimize your many other chances of being disenfranchised. The same is true for certain other states with otherwise draconian voter suppression laws, including Georgia, Wisconsin, and Kansas.
And if you’re involved in voter registration canvassing, shouldn’t you take along with you a stack of absentee ballot request forms, and explain the many advantages of ‘voting at home’ to new registrants? Shouldn’t every voter registration drive do this? Because the job’s not done until you actually get a ballot into that new voter’s hands, and provide him or her with a safe place to cast it.
Opt out of voter suppression, North Carolina. Vote at Home.
POSTSCRIPT: One of the goals behind the publication of this diary was to test the public reception for the ‘Vote At Home’ message before a politically engaged audience of folks who understand the importance of GOTV efforts (i.e, Kossacks). The many positive comments, below, as well as the numerous Facebook shares this article is earning, are encouraging indeed. But a minority of comments express concern that absentee voting by mail is (as one Facebook commenter suggested) “a trap” — more vulnerable to manipulation than are other forms of ballots. Such comments provide a valuable insight for us, indicating that this is a concern which the Vote At Home message must address.
The reality is that there is no form of ballot which cannot be manipulated by hypothetical election officials who are willing to face long prison terms...but some forms of voting are more susceptible to this than others. Electronic voting machines are perhaps the best example; there are no witnesses inside a computer chip. This includes the scantron machines which are commonly used in North Carolina polling places to read ballots filled out by pen. If anything, paper ballots delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, and counted on election day under the watchful eyes of poll monitors, are more secure than are other ballots, because there are witnesses.
One commenter expressed concern that a voter’s zip code, revealed on his mail-in ballot, might be used by rogue officials to mark that ballot for deletion based on the voter’s likely race. In North Carolina, such concerns are unfounded, as our voter registration database already lists every voter’s race, age, sex, zip code, and much more. Here again, absentee voting by mail poses no special vulnerability.
We thank all who have shared their concerns; you are helping us refine the Vote At Home message.
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