In the first week of early voting in North Carolina this month, the number of people who showed up to cast in-person ballots in Guilford County fell off a cliff. Voters cast 52,562 fewer ballots, a decrease of 87 percent from the same weeklong period four years earlier, according to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. The difference? In 2012, the county — where more than a third of the 517,000 residents are African-American and which gave President Obama 58 percent of the vote in 2012 — had 16 locations open for the first stretch of in-person early voting. This year, the Republican-controlled election board opened only one polling site for the first week of early voting — and the site was open two fewer days that first week. Civil rights advocates say what happened in Guilford County, the home of Greensboro, is part of a nationwide proliferation of largely Republican-led efforts, large and small, that discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos, and others at the ballot box. Measures that make voting more difficult — new voter ID laws; rules that make it harder to register; and cuts in the number and hours of polling places — have popped up throughout the country, including in some areas with a history of disenfranchisement.
The voting controversies of 2016 show that nearly 150 years after African-Americans gained the right to vote, and eight years after the nation elected its first black president, the United States continues to struggle with the task of ensuring that every eligible person is able to cast a ballot. “This is in some ways a historic election; its also an historically tragic election in the sense that what we’re dealing with is something that could have been avoided,” said the NAACP’s president, Cornell William Brooks.
At the center of this latest chapter is a 2013 decision by the Supreme Court that stripped out a central plank of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Because of a history of discrimination, the act required certain states and counties — mostly in the Deep South — to ask for federal permission before they changed voting rules and procedures. Even small decisions, like moving a polling location, needed a federal sign-off to ensure the changes wouldn’t keep minority voters from exercising their ballot rights. But in 2013, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the way the law decided which states needed to seek that permission.
Instantly, in nine states and parts of six others — including Guilford and 39 other North Carolina counties — the burden fell on voters and civil rights activists to fight unfair rules