North Carolina H.B. 589: Putting Up Barriers for Voters Who Move
This week, the North Carolina General Assembly presented to Governor McCrory House Bill No. 589, an omnibus election administration bill that has been called the most aggressive voter suppression bill since the Jim Crow era. McCrory has said that he will sign the bill.
The North Carolina General Assembly is the first state legislature to pass a voter suppression bill since the United States Supreme Court’s unfortunate ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, essentially rendering useless Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Passed by the legislature on July 26, H.B. 589 contains a variety of detrimental provisions that will obstruct eligible voters from registering to vote and casting an effective ballot in the state. These provisions include, among others, limiting the early voting period to only one week, terminating same day voter registration currently available during early voting, ending pre-registration for individuals who are 16 and 17 years old, and eliminating the ability for a provisional ballot to count if the voter casts it at the wrong precinct.
Several measures in the bill—including the termination of valid out-of-precinct voting and the elimination of same day voter registration during the early voting period—provide especially troubling consequences for North Carolina’s more mobile populations. This is a significant problem for voters, because according to the United States Census Bureau, more than one million people moved within the State of North Carolina from 2010 to 2011, including hundreds of thousands of voting-age North Carolinians who moved to a new county within the state.
By reducing the opportunities for voters who move to register and vote, this bill disproportionally impacts low-income citizens, young voters, and minorities because these groups tend to have high mobility rates. For example, Americans with income levels below 100 percent of the poverty level have the highest mobility rate compared to individuals with higher incomes.
Currently in North Carolina, an individual may cast a provisional ballot in a precinct other than his or her own if that person shows up at a polling station in his or her county on Election Day. This provisional ballot is counted for all ballot items that the individual was eligible to vote for in that election. Additionally, North Carolina currently provides permanent portable voter registration—allowing individuals who moved within the state the opportunity to update their voter registration information and cast their ballot on the same day—by offering same day registration during the early voting period. This is especially important for voters who move and miss the mail registration deadline.
But H.B. 589 constructs a significant roadblock for North Carolina’s mobile population by ending both of these voter-friendly policies. For example, an individual’s vote will no longer count and the voter will be disenfranchised entirely if that person did not vote in his or her proper precinct or at a vote center. An individual is more likely to arrive at the wrong precinct if that person has recently moved or the election officials have changed the voter’s polling place. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, approximately 19 percent of provisional ballots issued in North Carolina in 2012 were due to voters not updating their voter registration information after they moved to a new residence.
Under the new bill, more provisional ballots will be cast, and only those ballots cast in the voter’s correct precinct will count at all. Terminating same day registration will only compound this problem because individuals who moved to a new county in the state will not have the opportunity to re-register during the early voting period as they do now. If an otherwise-eligible voter wants to cast a ballot in their new county, the individual must register in the new precinct at least 25 days prior to Election Day.
Instead of limiting voting opportunities, the North Carolina General Assembly should be enacting legislation to reduce barriers to voting. North Carolina is currently a leader when it comes to early voting, permanent portable voter registration, and voter turnout. With the enactment of H.B. 589, North Carolina’s status as a leader in 21st century election reforms will dramatically decline. North Carolina should not regress, but rather maintain and build upon what was once a successful and supported voting system.
For further information regarding permanent portable voter registration, check out our new policy paper, written by Michelle Kanter Cohen.
Leela Baggett is a rising second-year law student at the George Washington University Law School. She joins Project Vote as legal intern for summer 2013.
Photo by Robert S. Donovan via Creative Commons license