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North Carolina Voter ID Law Won't Save GOP From Demographic Change

Last night, one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country went into effect in North Carolina. In reality, the law is a sort of “voter suppression” omnibus package, packed full of provisions that cannot be justified on voter-fraud grounds, including all-but-indefensible steps like banning counties from extending poll hours due to long lines. Obviously, Democrats are outraged about a transparent effort to make voting harder. But they’re also concerned by the possibility the law will seriously hurt their electoral changes—if Republican statements in Pennsylvania are any indication, conservatives probably think those Democratic fears are well founded. But even though this bill includes every trick in the bag, this bill deals a more serious blow to voting rights than Democratic chances. If North Carolina was a 2016 battleground yesterday, it's still a 2016 battleground today.

The core provisions of the bill—voter-ID, ending same-day registration, and reducing early voting—all have a demonstrably disparate impact on non-white and Democratic-leaning voters. According to data from the North Carolina Secretary of State:

--46 percent of voters without a state-issued photo identification are non-white, 36 percent are black, 58 percent are Democrats;

--33 percent of early voters were non-white, 27 percent were black, 48 percent were Democrats;

--56 percent of same-day registered voters were non-white, 32 percent were black, 50 percent were Democrats;

--For comparison, 30 percent of registered North Carolinians are non-white, 21 percent are black, 43 percent are Democrats.

It’s hard to gauge the impact of some of the more peripheral elements of the law, like ending early registration for 16 and 17 year olds, banning counties from extending poll hours, ending voter registration drives, making provisional voting more difficult, or eliminating straight ticket voting. But realistically, the law is so expansive that it seems safe to presume that they will have some collective, negative impact on turnout.

But despite the obviously disparate impact on Democratic groups, this law is not a death knell for North Carolina Democrats. Realistically, the electoral consequences of the law will be negligible and difficult to discern. Start with voter ID. Obama would have lost a net-25,000 or 30,000 votes if the voters without a state issued photo-ID didn’t participate in the 2012 election. That’s a high-end estimate: Some unknown number of those voters have passports (not issued by state), others would get a form of photo identification in order to vote. But even if it is 30,000 votes, that’s only meaningful in an extremely close election and most elections aren’t that close. No state was so close in 2012, although Al Gore would remind you that they can be. 

What about early voting cutbacks? Ending same day registration? Ending straight-ticket voting? Well, consider Virginia. It’s quite similar to North Carolina, since it too has a large black population in both cities and the countryside, burgeoning liberal metropolitan areas, and a rural conservative base. But Virginia doesn’t have non-absentee early voting, same day registration, or straight-ticket voting. It even has a voter ID law, albeit a less restrictive one than North Carolina. Despite all of those things, Virginia had higher turnout than North Carolina: 69 percent of eligible voters turned out, compared to 68 percent in North Carolina. President Obama won by 3.9 points, which was in-line with the demographics and better than the polls anticipated. And I never hear Democrats complaining about how they’re screwed by the absence of early voting and same-day registration in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

What about the voter registration drives? Consider Florida. They didn’t ban voter registration laws, but they passed a burdensome law causing organizations like Rock The Vote to abandon their voter registration drives. Even so, the white share of registered voters dropped from 68.5 percent in 2010 to 66.5 percent in 2012. In comparison, the white share of registered voters dropped from 71.9 to 69.1 percent between 2006 and 2008. Overall, the number of newly registered voters dropped from 813,785 between 2006 and 2008 to 717,062 between 2010 and 2012. That’s not necessarily distinguishable from static, especially since the pace of new voter registrations generally declined a bit everywhere, including a state like North Carolina.

It’s possible that taking away early voting days or same day registration is worse for turnout than never having it in the first place, like Virginia. Just how significant the difference might be is hard to say. But in Ohio and Florida, Republicans tried these same tactics and there wasn’t much evidence that it did them very much good. A well-publicized study suggested that 200,000 voters went home because of long-lines in Florida, which were lengthened by the shortened early voting period. 200,000 isn’t nothing—it’s a little more than 2 percent of the electorate. But unless those voters were breaking overwhelmingly for one party, you wouldn’t notice it in the results. And indeed, Obama lost less support in Florida between 2008 and 2012 than any other battleground state. According to the Census, the non-white share of the Florida electorate still dropped from 71 to 67 percent.

There’s no question that North Carolina’s voter law package has a disparate impact on Democratic-leaning voters and turnout. In a democratic society founded on democratic voting principles, the outrage is justified. But when it comes to changing electoral outcomes, the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that the overwhelmingly majority of voters are either unaffected by provisions such as these, or care enough about voting to make sure they get to the ballot box anyway. And since the sliver of affected voters must include some Republicans too, the electoral consequences are so small as to be indiscernible. What is discernible is the steady growth of the non-white share of the electorate. In North Carolina, the white share of registered voters declined from 76 percent in January 2005 to 71 percent in January 2013. Despite the North Carolina GOP’s best efforts to reduce voter registration and turnout, that trend will continue.

This post has been updated.