WASHINGTON — 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 —
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.
A flood of legislative and court fights is the result, as advocates protest what they call a wave of GOP-led measures to suppress the votes of African-Americans and other groups that often lean Democratic.
“We are essentially back in whack-a-mole land,” said Sean Young, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, referring to how rights groups had to battle voter-suppression efforts 50 years ago. “We can’t be everywhere at once.”
In Monroe County, Fla., officials reacted to the Supreme Court decision by reverting to English-only election materials; when they were covered by the Voting Rights Act they had to provide materials in Spanish, too. In Macon-Bibb County, Ga., advocates gathered hundreds of signatures to beat back an attempt to move a polling place from a community gym that was being renovated to the local sheriff’s office. In Arizona’s most populous county, officials slashed polling locations by 70 percent for the March presidential primary, leading to waits as long as five hours.
And if the Voting Rights Act were still intact, Guilford almost certainly would not have been able to slash its number of early voting places in the first week, civil rights advocates and voting law experts say.
Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who’s tracking voting data, said the drop-off in early-voting turnout in counties that cut back locations happened even as early-vote volumes rose in places without such cuts.
“I seriously doubt that that has anything to do with African Americans being less interested in the election,” McDonald said of the Guilford County numbers. “This was intentional.”
Michelle Obama mentioned the controversy while campaigning with Hillary Clinton in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Thursday. “You may have seen in previous weeks that folks were trying to cut early-voting places, and cut the hours they were open, but that didn’t stop people in this state. That’s beautiful,” she said. She urged voters to turn out. “Crowd those places. I want you to remember that folks marched and protested for our right to vote. They endured beatings and jail time. They sacrificed their lives for this right.”
At the beginning of October, a group of voters represented by Marc Elias
Kathryn Lindley, chair of Guilford County’s board of elections, said the early-voting plan, which had to be changed relatively last-minute after North Carolina’s latest voting law was struck down by federal courts, was “absolutely not” designed to disenfranchise African-American voters.
“There was never an effort to even limit the opportunity to vote for any segment of Guilford County,” she said, and that overall, the county will provide more hours of early voting this year than in 2012 or 2008.
On Thursday, it opened an additional 24 early-voting sites, as dictated by a compromise plan the three-person election board approved Aug. 8. An earlier proposal by the board’s two Republicans, which eliminated Sunday voting and called for fewer early-voting sites, prompted protests.
Early-voter turnout ramped up once the additional sites opened but had not caught up with 2012’s turnout. As of Oct. 29, in-person ballots cast were down 26 percent from the same period four years earlier. Much of that difference is due to black voters in the county, for whom turnout is down 38 percent, according to Bitzer.
Republicans in states like North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama defend voter ID laws as necessary to prevent voter fraud.
Republican Donald Trump has supported voter ID laws generally and North Carolina’s specifically amid months of escalating claims during the presidential campaign that the election is “rigged.”
“Voter ID — what’s with that?” Trump said in August in Wilmington, N.C. He suggested the process should be “‘I want to vote, here’s my identification. As opposed to somebody coming up and voting 15 times for Hillary.”
On Thursday, Trump said on Twitter that Texas voters were complaining about “vote flipping,” or their votes for Trump registering as votes for Clinton.
Voting rights advocates and Democrats bristle at Trump’s unfounded complaints. “We have judges in the courts attesting to the fact that we have a real problem with voter suppression, as opposed to presidential candidates imaginging voter fraud,” said Brooks.
No legal victory drove that point home harder, advocates say, than a federal appeals court striking down five parts of North Carolina’s sprawling voting law in July. The court said the provisions, which included cuts in early voting and a strict voter-ID requirement, “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
A spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections provided data showing that, collectively, counties have scheduled more hours of early voting than four years ago and more early-voting sites.
Brooks said restoration of the Voting Rights Act will be one of the NAACP’s top priorities. “There’s a sense we have gone awry; we need a moral reset,” he said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the home city of the News & Observer newspaper. It is based in Raleigh, N.C.