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A Step in the Wrong Direction: Cutting Early Voting Hurts Voters

The numbers are in: early voting works. Cuts to early voting threaten voter turnout.

  • Phoenix Rice-Johnson
November 5, 2016

Although Election Day is next week, more than 22 million Americans have already cast their ballots. That’s because 35 states now offer voters the opportunity to take advantage of early voting opportunities. Over one-third of all ballots are now cast early, and this year states from Texas to Georgia to Wisconsin are experiencing higher early voting rates than ever before.

The bad news is that despite its growing popularity with voters and election officials alike, some states are cutting back on early voting opportunities. Six states have implemented early voting reductions since the 2010 election. This number would have been even higher had courts not stepped in to block cuts to early voting in other states, including North Carolina. Unfortunately, a victory at the courthouse there hasn’t been enough to protect early voting, and reports surfaced this week of long lines, particularly in diverse urban areas in the state.

North Carolina’s 2013 law slashing early voting was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals this summer, because it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” But, restoring access to the ballot for those disenfranchised by the law has not been simple. The court left North Carolina’s partisan county election boards with the job of determining how to reinstate the six days of early voting that had earlier been cut by the law — a decision that has led some party operatives to find workaround ways to limit the franchise.

An email from North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse encouraged recipients to “call your republican election board members and remind them that as partisan republican appointees they have [a] duty to consider republican points of view.” The email went on to emphasize ways to make early voting more challenging — such as only offering one vote site and eliminating voting hours on the weekends whenever possible. Woodhouse’s efforts to limit the franchise of North Carolina’s voters is alarming, all the more so because it appears to be working.

Several reports show extended wait times of up to three hours in urban areas in North Carolina. An analysis found that seven counties made it harder to use early voting by decreasing the number of polling sites, limiting the number of days open for early voting, or both. All seven of these counties have a higher proportion of African Americans than the state overall. In total, North Carolina’s three most populous counties saw cuts to early voting that will affect one-third of the state’s black voters. These kinds of changes threaten the existence of practices like “Souls to the Polls,” in which African-American congregations vote together after Sunday services.

North Carolina isn’t the only state where voters are facing cutbacks to early voting in this presidential election. In 2014, Ohio’s state legislature made it more difficult to vote when it eliminated “Golden Week,” a period in which voters could both register to vote and cast a ballot before Election Day all in one trip. An Ohio district court found the law had a discriminatory effect on African-American voters, who were more likely to take advantage of Golden Week. In the opinion, Judge Michael Watson noted that cutting Golden Week could lead to “longer lines at the polls, thereby increasing the burdens for those who must wait in those lines and deterring voting.” The 6th Circuit Court, however, reversed the trial court’s decision, meaning voters were unable to take advantage of Golden Week in 2016. Recent news reports confirm that voters in Ohio are, understandably, confused by the new election rules and unsure about their early voting options.

These cuts to early voting threaten turnout by limiting a reform that otherwise works to make voting possible for every eligible citizen. As the Brennan Center’s research has found, early voting is wildly popular among voters and election officials alike. And, early voting has the added advantage of helping elections run more smoothly by diminishing long lines, improving poll worker performance, and allowing earlier detection and correction of any systemic problems with registration, voting machines, or ballots. Given these advantages, states must take the crucial step of offering voters the opportunity to cast their ballot early. The numbers are in: early voting works.

Photo: Thinkstock