Last August, North Carolina made a bold attempt to convince the Supreme Court to reinstate several key provisions of an omnibus voter suppression law, previously struck down by a federal appeals court. Led by Paul Clement, the de facto Solicitor General of the Republican Party, the state claimed that its attempt to cut early voting days would actually increase turnout by African Americans.
“The State has had multiple elections with 10 days instead of 17,” the state said in an emergency application to the justices seeking to restore the voter suppression law. “And its requirement that each county maintain the same number of early voting hours as it did under the previous 17-day rule has actually significantly increased early voting, both generally and by minorities.”
It was an audacious statement, considering how the state law cutting early voting days came into being in the first place. As a federal appeals court’s decision in North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory explained, “the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.” After receiving that data, the Republican-controlled legislature “enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.”
With respect to early voting, the appeals court explained, data showed that “African Americans disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting,” and so “the General Assembly amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting.”
We now know that the state’s claim to the Supreme Court — that its efforts to depress the black vote would actually increase minority turnout — was not true. North Carolina’s made a more aggressive effort than any other state to reduce black turnout. And, while those efforts were mitigated by the appeals court decision, they weren’t entirely halted.
Here’s what actually happened to black turnout during 2016’s early voting in North Carolina: It plummeted by nearly 9 percent compared to four years ago.
Something went very wrong for African-Americans' voting in North Carolina pic.twitter.com/ZpwjyEavmd
— Michael McDonald (@ElectProject) November 6, 2016
The state’s basis for claiming that fewer early voting days would actually increase minority turnout was the change in turnout between two recent elections. In 2014, early voting among voters of color did increase relative to early voting in the previous off-year election in 2010. But there is no reason to believe that this occurred because of the state’s cuts to early voting days.
A more likely explanation is that, in 2014, North Carolina featured a very close Senate race between incumbent Kay Hagan (D) and challenger Thom Tillis (R), which Tillis wound up winning by less than two points. In 2010, by contrast, the state’s top-line race was a not especially competitive race between incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R) and a Democratic challenger who lost by more that 11 points.
Overall, turnout grew by just under 9 percent in 2014 as compared to 2010, which is what one would expect if the biggest race in the state was more competitive that year.
In any event, North Carolina failed to convince a majority of the Supreme Court to reinstate its law, although all four of the Republican-appointed justices sided with the state in this case.
Nevertheless, while several key provisions of the law were supposed to be suspended by a court order, many North Carolina counties found ways to partially implement the legislature’s wishes to make it harder to vote. The state GOP sent a confidential memo to county election officials calling upon them to cut early voting because doing so is “in the best interest of the party.” Though some of these efforts were blocked by the state elections board, 17 counties provided “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.”
And, if the early turnout data is any indication, this strategy appears to have worked.