In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, racist white Democrats in the South concocted convoluted rules to suppress the votes of African Americans who generally favored Republicans – the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Later, these suppression tactics evolved: first to assure that Black Americans, who had abandoned the GOP in the wake of the New Deal, didn’t gain too much power in the Democratic Party, and of course most recently, as part of an effort to benefit Republicans.
Conversely, there can be little doubt that many modern-day champions of expanding voter participation have pursued such a path with the hope and expectation that it would benefit progressive causes, many of which tend to benefit the poor and marginalized in society who have traditionally been excluded from voting.
This longstanding contest over voting is front and center again in 2021 in the aftermath of a national election that was, bizarrely, both one of the smoothest and most honest in history and most bitterly disputed.
Even as scores of courts and election experts have repeatedly debunked claims of widespread election fraud and validated the utility of rules implemented during the pandemic, politicians and activists loyal to Donald Trump continue to advance all manner of crazy and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
These competing narratives are now playing out in legislative bodies across the country.
In Washington, the U.S. House has already given its blessing to one of the most ambitious proposals to expand access to the ballot in American history. H.R.1, the “For the People Act,” would, among many other things, require states to offer at least two weeks of early voting, allow same day registration for federal elections, allow voters to make change so their registration at the polls, and provide for automatic voter registration.
Meanwhile, in state capitals across the country, Republican legislators have proposed hundreds of bills that would restrict voting. As the Washington Post reported last week:
The GOP’s national push to enact hundreds of new election restrictions could strain every available method of voting for tens of millions of Americans, potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Black men….”
Georgia – the state that was at the center of so much controversy in the immediate aftermath of the election – has become a poster child for this latter phenomenon. Despite the utter lack of evidence of fraud in 2020 (other than Trump’s own efforts to manipulate the outcome), Republican legislators from the Peach State have recently advanced a bevy of bills to limit ballot access. One proposal would even ban the distribution of water and snacks to people waiting in line to vote.
Interestingly and somewhat hopefully, however, there is at least one sizable jurisdiction in the United States that seems to offer a less divisive path forward on the issue: North Carolina.
As a pair of well-known political observers from our state – longtime voting rights champion Bob Hall and conservative commentator Rick Henderson – explained in a recent jointly authored column, the 2020 outcome in North Carolina debunked the notion that ease of voter participation and big turnout are anathema to the conservative cause:
The numbers show that voters of all persuasions benefited from reforms adopted in North Carolina over the past two decades and from emergency measures added because of COVID-19.
In fact, Republicans benefited the most; state law in 2020, even as administered by majority Democratic boards of elections, helped pro-GOP voters overtake the anticipated blue wave and win nearly all the closely contested races in North Carolina.”
Indeed, as Hall and Henderson note, it was GOP voters who made the most extensive use of benefits, like same-day registration, the ability to correct provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct, and voting on the final Saturday before Election Day.
Not surprisingly, there’s been scarcely a peep from Trump or his minions about the use of these tools in North Carolina because, ultimately, the only thing that mattered to Trump happened here: He won the state.
And, while one still hears ominous rumblings from some North Carolina Republicans and their allies about “election security” concerns, we have thus far yet to see – fingers crossed – the emergence of a broad, voter suppression agenda during the 2021 legislative session of the kind that the GOP is pursuing elsewhere or that it pushed in North Carolina a few years back with the infamous 2013 “Monster Voting Law.”
Meanwhile, despite the relative lack of electoral success for Democrats, progressives in the state are sticking to their support of maximizing access to the franchise.
In short, there seems at least an outside chance that North Carolina could offer a new model for the nation when it comes to voting rules: one in which a) the goals of maximizing voter participation and ease of voting are pursued not for partisan advantage, but simply for the good of democracy itself, and b) election contests come down battles over ideas, rather than who does and doesn’t get to vote.