As appeared in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal today, December 29th, 2014.
The Voter Suppression Myth Takes Another Hit
Memo to critics of North Carolina’s election-law reforms: Black midterm turnout has increased.
By ROBERT D. POPPER
Dec. 28, 2014 6:57 p.m. ET
Federal lawsuits against North Carolina claim that recent changes to the state’s election laws will “suppress” minority votes. For example, in N.C. State Conf. of NAACP v. McCrory, plaintiffs assert that the new laws “impose a disproportionate burden on the ability of African Americans to vote” and will “raise costs for voters and deter participation.” They highlight testimony by a former director of the State Board of Elections who asserted that the laws will “ultimately reduc[e] turnout in comparison to comparable elections.”
Turnout data for the 2014 election, posted Dec. 10 on the state’s Board of Elections website, tell a different story. Black turnout and registration for the November 2014 election increased by every relevant measure compared with November 2010, the last non-presidential general election.
Last July, North Carolina adopted electoral reforms that eliminated same-day registration, reduced the number of days of early voting to 10 from 17, and required ballots to be cast in a voter’s home precinct. It also instituted a voter-ID requirement that will take full effect in 2016.
Two sets of plaintiffs, led by the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, sued in federal court on Aug. 12, 2013. They were followed a few weeks later by the Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted that the state’s new laws would restrict “access and ease of voter participation” and “would shrink, rather than expand, access to the franchise.”
All three suits alleged that the reforms will inflict “burdens” on North Carolina voters—and in particular, on minority voters. These allegations were backed by reams of expert reports submitted by social scientists predicting that these burdens would depress voter registration and turnout.
One expert in the Justice Department lawsuit claimed that more than 200,000 black voters, along with 700,000 white voters, would be “burdened” in an off-year election. Another expert concluded that particular provisions “will lower turnout overall” and “will have a disparate impact on African-American voters.”
Those predictions were not borne out. The 2014 elections were the first test of the impact of North Carolina’s new laws, including a “soft rollout” of its voter-ID requirement—under which poll workers asked voters if they had ID and if not, to acknowledge the new requirement in writing. Board of Elections data showed that the percentage of age-eligible, non-Hispanic black residents who turned out to vote in North Carolina rose to 41.1% in November 2014 from 38.5% in November 2010.
The percentage of black registrants voting increased to 42.2% from 40.3% in the same period, and the black share of votes cast increased to 21.4% from 20.1%. The absolute number of black voters increased 16%, to 628,004 from 539,646.
This pattern is consistent with the primary elections held in May 2014, according to an analysis of North Carolina Board of Elections data submitted by Judicial Watch in its amicus brief in the Justice Department lawsuit, U.S. v. State of North Carolina. Compared with the 2010 primary, minority participation increased in the 2014 primary by every relevant measure, including the percentage of age-eligible black residents who registered and who voted, the voting rate among black registered voters, and black voters’ relative vote share.
North Carolina is the latest example of allegedly “suppressive” laws that failed to suppress votes. The adoption of controversial voter-ID laws in recent years in Georgia and Tennessee had no negative effect on minority turnout, which either remained stable or increased. For example, according to surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau, turnout among blacks of voting age in Tennessee in 2012 remained stable within the margin of error, and was around 4% higher than white turnout. Turnout among Hispanic voters rose. It is becoming harder to ignore the data suggesting that the “voter suppression” narrative is a myth.
The kind of burdens voters should tolerate in order to allow for the administration of honest elections is properly the subject of debate and should always be carefully considered. But this debate is not raised by laws like those at issue in North Carolina, which, the data show, are not any burden at all.
Mr. Popper is a senior attorney for Judicial Watch and served as the deputy chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department from 2008-13.