Early voting kicked off on Thursday in the key swing state of North Carolina, and voters turned out to the polls in droves. Across the state, but especially in the urban centers of Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Winston-Salem, voters waited for hours to cast a ballot.
The heated races for president, governor, and senator are certainly driving the high turnout, but cuts to early voting sites in some counties and the elimination of straight-ticket voting may be exacerbating long wait times.
— Mel Hartsell (@melhartsell) October 20, 2016
This is what democracy looks like. pic.twitter.com/n40rvpAsly
— Rachel Gurvich (@RachelGurvich) October 20, 2016
After North Carolina’s attempt to eliminate an entire week of early voting was struck down by a federal court in July, many Republican-controlled county election boards tried to take matters into their own hands. Dozens of counties voted to slash the number of early voting locations — especially targeting areas of high Democratic voter turnout like college campuses and African-American neighborhoods. Many, but not all, of these cuts were blocked by the state Board of Elections.
This year, 17 North Carolina counties will provide fewer total early voting hours than in 2012, and three counties that offered early voting on a Sunday in 2012 got rid of that option. Though the state is offering more early voting hours overall than residents had in 2012, many counties are offering no evening hours, making access difficult for people who work one or more jobs.
One of the areas with the longest lines this week — Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County — offered 22 locations for the first day of early voting in 2012. This year, they offered only 10. Voters reported waiting for more than three hours to cast a ballot.
More sites will open next week, and the county will offer slightly more total early voting hours than it did in 2012. But a federal court found that for many years in the state, “African Americans disproportionately used the first seven days” — a fact legislators knew when they pursued the cuts. More than half of all the votes cast in the 2012 election were cast early and in person, and black voters in particular favor early and in-person voting.
According to data compiled by the United States Elections Project, the reductions in polling sites — and the long lines that have ensued — may depressing turnout in some counties.
Guilford County reduced the number of polling sites in the first week of early voting from 16 in 2012 to a single location this year. Turnout so far is down 85 percent.
The court struck down the vast majority of North Carolina’s election changes, calling them an attempt to suppress voters of color “with surgical precision.” But one piece allowed to stand was the elimination of straight-ticket voting — the option for a voter to check a single box in order to vote for a party’s candidates up and down the ballot.
A study by the non-profit voting rights group Democracy North Carolina found that 2.5 million voters used straight-ticket voting in 2012. Since it takes much longer to vote for each candidate individually, the organization fears this could slow down the already long wait times at the polls.
Editor’s note: This post was updated with statewide data of total early voting hours in 2012 and 2016.