On a recent weekday night in central North Carolina, about 20 people, mostly African-American senior citizens, gathered in a neighborhood church. After an opening hymn, a congregant walked to the lectern and asked all to bow their heads. “As we listen to each speaker tonight,” she said, “we ask for better understanding of how to fulfill our right to vote.” The evening’s order of business was to educate people about the complexities of the state’s new voting law, enacted in August by the Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature. Tomorrow’s primary elections, in which voters will choose local officials as well as nominees for congressional races, will be the first time North Carolina voters go to the polls since the law’s passage. Though Tuesday’s voting is unlikely to provide a significant test of the new law — turnout is typically low in midterm elections — voting-rights advocates are keeping an eye on provisions, such as curtailed early voting and the end of same-day registration, that they say will disproportionately affect poor, working-class and African-American voters. (The best-known element of the new law, requiring voters to show government-issued identification at polling places, is not scheduled to go into effect until 2016.)
The new law is a centerpiece of what Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House and the leading GOP candidate trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, has called a “conservative revolution.” Republicans, who control the state’s executive and legislative branches for the first time in 140 years, have passed laws curbing abortion, cutting corporate taxes and rejecting a federally funded expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. They also joined a national trend in implementing the voter restrictions, often billed as measures to cut down on electoral fraud.
In response to state electoral data showing that such fraud is extremely rare — accounting for less than one-thousandth of one percent of ballots cast — Tillis has argued that preventing electoral chicanery was not the “primary reason” for the new regulations. Rather, he said, legislators were responding to constituent demands to “restore confidence” in elections. “What we were really trying to do with the bill is to increase the integrity at the ballot box,” he said in a brief interview last week.