Early voting kicked off on Thursday in the key swing state of North Carolina, and voters turned out to the polls in droves. Across the state, but especially in the urban centers of Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Winston-Salem, voters waited for hours to cast a ballot.
The heated races for president, governor, and senator are certainly driving the high turnout, but cuts to early voting sites and the elimination of straight-ticket voting may be exacerbating the long wait times.
— Mel Hartsell (@melhartsell) October 20, 2016
This is what democracy looks like. pic.twitter.com/n40rvpAsly
— Rachel Gurvich (@RachelGurvich) October 20, 2016
After North Carolina’s attempt to eliminate an entire week of early voting was struck down by a federal court in July, many Republican-controlled county election boards tried to take matters into their own hands. Dozens of counties voted to slash the number of early voting locations — especially targeting areas of high Democratic voter turnout like college campuses and African-American neighborhoods. Many, but not all, of these cuts were blocked by the state Board of Elections.
This year, 17 North Carolina counties will provide fewer total early voting hours than in 2012, and three counties that offered early voting on a Sunday in 2012 got rid of that option. Many counties are offering no evening hours, making access difficult for people who work one or more jobs.
One of the areas with the longest lines this week — Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County — offered 22 locations for the first day of early voting in 2012. This year, they offered only 10. Voters reported waiting for more than three hoursto cast a ballot.
North Carolina state and county officials pursued these cuts despite the overwhelming popularity of early voting. More than half of all the votes cast in the 2012 election were cast early and in person, and black voters in particular favor early and in-person voting. A federal court found that before trying to eliminate the entire first week of early voting, the state requested data showing “African Americans disproportionately used the first seven days.”
The court struck down the vast majority of North Carolina’s election changes, calling them an attempt to suppress voters of color “with surgical precision.” But one piece allowed to stand was the elimination of straight-ticket voting — the option for a voter to check a single box in order to vote for a party’s candidates up and down the ballot.
A study by the non-profit voting rights group Democracy North Carolina found that 2.5 million voters used straight-ticket voting in 2012. Since it takes much longer to vote for each candidate individually, the organization fears this could slow down the already long wait times at the polls.