Study: North Carolina’s changes to early voting sites have dramatic racial disparity

Black voters in North Carolina will have to travel roughly 350,000 extra miles in order vote early after the state moved 114 of the state’s 363 early voting sites (while adding three locations) last year, according to a new analysis from insightus, a non-profit data consultancy. White voters in the state will have to travel a total of just 21,000 extra miles, despite representing 71% of the state’s population (African-Americans account for 22% of the population).

On average, each white voter is now just 26 feet farther from an early voting site; the average black voter is more than a quarter mile farther away. In other words, shifting the polling locations moved black voters’ nearest early voting location more than 50 times farther away than it did for their white counterparts.

Early voting is popular in North Carolina, and helped keep President Obama competitive in the state (carrying it once) during his two runs for the White House. In 2008 and 2012, 70 percent of black voters cast their ballots early, compared to 50 percent of white voters.

Though the policy change was conducted under a Republican administration with a history of restricting ballot access for lower-income and minority voters, no one is alleging (yet) that the move was intentionally designed to make it harder for African-Americans to vote. From MSNBC’s Zachary Roth:

Local election administrators move the location of polling sites frequently, in order to better accommodate changing voting habits and serve voters more effectively. No one is alleging that the counties coordinated on a plan to make it harder for blacks to vote.

Can't Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Can’t Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

And, importantly, even after the changes, black voters are still closer to early voting locations on average than white voters (though blacks are more likely not to have a car, so they may still face a longer journey by time). Before the changes, blacks were 2.90 miles away while whites were 3.77 miles away, on average, according to Busa’s numbers. After the changes, blacks were 3.14 miles away while whites remained 3.77 miles away.

But [insightus’s] analysis underscores how even minor changes to election systems that might have been intended to be neutral can nonetheless have the effect of hurting racial minorities more than whites. In this case, that might have been because white neighborhoods are more likely to have amenities like parking, leading election administrators to put polling locations in those areas.

However, as Roth pointed out, changes such as these would have been subject to federal scrutiny under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prior to the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v Holder decision, which removed pre-clearance requirements. Had North Carolina’s early voting site changes been subject to federal scrutiny, they would likely have been blocked due to their racially disparate effects — regardless as to their intent.

Those effects could be large. As Roth writes, “All told, an increased distance of a quarter mile to vote, played out across the state’s roughly 1.5 million registered black voters, could have a significant impact. A 2011 study of Los Angeles County voting found that for every one-tenth of a mile increase in the distance to a polling place up to 0.4 of a mile, voting declines by 0.5 percent. By those numbers, North Carolina’s changes might have kept nearly 19,000 black voters from the polls.”

That said, it’s unclear as to how large of an effect the early voting site changes had on the state’s most recent elections because North Carolina has gone out of its way to make early voting in general more difficult. In addition to moving sites, the state has ended same-day voter registration (which was commonly used in conjunction with early voting) and cut the number of days early voting is offered in half. The law that implemented those effects, the Voter Information and Verification Act (VIVA), has been shown to have kept roughly 30,000 North Carolinians from the polls in 2014 — and those would-be voters were disproportionately low-income and non-white. In addition, the state is currently facing a lawsuit over irregularities in its implementation of the National Voter Registration Act, as the state has seen a large, uniform decrease in voter registrations processed by public assistance agencies since Republican Pat McCrory became governor in 2013.

So regardless as to whether North Carolina’s elections officials intentionally moved early voting sites in order to make it more difficult for African-Americans to cast ballots, their move has reinforced and fallen in line with a series of other changes that have done exactly that. And as long as it remains the case that the burden of proof is on the citizen to prove discrimination, as opposed to the burden of proof being on the state to prove a compelling interest in restricting ballot access, it will remain difficult to keep these nominally neutral policy tweaks from tilting the electoral playing field in favor of higher-income and white voters.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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6 Responses to “Study: North Carolina’s changes to early voting sites have dramatic racial disparity”

  1. Randy Riddle says:

    I don’t want to live in an Apartheid South.

  2. Badgerite says:

    Me to headline – What a surprise.

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  5. DoverBill says:

    Hey, as long as the average ignorant American doesn’t give a flyin’ fuck one way or the other, why not supress the poor, black vote; after all how many lobbiest can they afford?

  6. Indigo says:

    White Supremacy is not maintained by following the rules or playing fair.

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