The dust is settling in North Carolina's epic, years-long fight over access to the ballot for 2016. And most of the potential barriers that had threatened to stymie voters in the crucial presidential swing state have been cleared.
Still, after state officials held a closely watched meeting Thursday to hammer out an early voting schedule, voting rights advocates say they're worried about long lines at the polls this fall, especially for minority voters.
In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit blocked key provisions of North Carolina's multi-pronged 2013 voting law, including its photo ID requirement and its reduction of the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days. The restrictions "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision," the court found. A divided U.S. Supreme Court last week declined the state's request to overturn that ruling.
But one result of the appeals court's decision was to give North Carolina's 100 counties the power to set new early voting schedules. That led to a mostly covert bid by state Republicans and their conservative backers to pressure counties into restricting early voting access, while still offering the court-mandated 17 days. Republicans hold a 2-1 majority on all 100 county boards because the state's governor, Pat McCrory, is a Republican.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, last month sent an email to local GOP election officials urging them to "make party line changes to early voting" by eliminating Sunday voting — when African-Americans often vote en masse after church via "Souls to the Polls" — and cutting hours and voting sites.
Ultimately, the GOP effort was mostly unsuccessful. At Thursday's meeting, the state election board finalized early voting schedules for the 33 counties where boards had failed to unanimously approve a plan on their own, and it significantly improved several restrictive plans approved by local Republicans.
The state's largest county, Mecklenburg, which includes Charlotte, ended up with slightly more total early voting hours than it had in 2012, and kept Sunday voting. The state board also added voting sites for the first seven days in Wake County, the state's second largest county, which includes Raleigh. And 22 counties in total will offer Sunday voting this year, compared to 21 in 2012.
"The big thing is reversing those counties that, after having Sunday voting in 2012, tried to eliminate it this November," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, which led the legal challenge to the 2013 law. "That is critical, because it reflects the Fourth Circuit's ruling, which noted that the elimination of a week of early voting was problematic [because] it eliminated an opportunity for Souls to the Polls activities."
Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, which supports expanded voting access and has monitored the early voting controversy closely, agreed. "Overall it was a positive day for North Carolina voters," Hall said.
That was in part because of the threat of continued legal action still hanging over the state's head. Advocates for Democrats reminded the board of the appeals court's July decision, which found intentional racial discrimination. Voting rights groups have lately been considering taking the state back to court if the early voting schedule restricts access to minorities.
Still, Hall said potential problems remain. Forsyth County scrapped Sunday voting and eliminated a site on the campus of Winston-Salem University, though it added one nearby and scheduled more total hours than in 2012. New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington, also eliminated Sunday voting, which it had offered during the primaries earlier this year. Guilford County will offer only one site for the first week of early voting, in downtown Greensboro. That's not accessible for many voters, especially African-Americans, Hall said. And an early voting site in the student center of Appalachian State University is likely to be moved to an off-campus site that's never before offered early voting.
But even counties that didn't reduce access could still be set for problems, voting advocates warn. North Carolina's population has grown rapidly, even since 2012. Between July 2014 and July 2015, the state added over 102,000 people, more than all but five other states. Much of that growth has been in the Charlotte and Raleigh metro areas. Meanwhile, the Republican-backed voting law eliminated straight-ticket voting — a time-saving device that lets the voter pull one lever to select all of a party's candidates. It was used by 56 percent of the state's voters in 2012, disproportionately African-Americans.
The combined effect of the growth of North Carolina's population in urban areas and the loss of straight-ticket voting could lead to long lines at the polls this fall. William Busa of the North-Carolina-based data analytics group Insightus said his team is preparing a detailed analysis of the distance-to-voting-site and population-per-site hurdles now faced by white and minority voters and will compare those to 2012 data to assess whether this year's changes are racially discriminatory.
There's also likely to be a high level of confusion among voters and poll workers over the state of all aspects of the law, given the changes in recent years. The photo ID provision, for instance, didn't go into effect until 2016, though the state requested ID in 2014. It was in place for the primaries earlier this year. Now it's no longer enforced thanks to the appeals court ruling, and the state has been ordered to conduct a public education campaign to inform voters. But at least one county this week sent out mailers wrongly telling voters that photo ID was still required.