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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.

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