Leading up to today’s primary election, North Carolina has been the focus of national discourse on the right to vote and the fundamentals of democracy. North Carolina has one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation, as well as some of the most blatant gerrymandered electoral maps. Given these facts, it’s no wonder that North Carolinians, and especially young people, feel disenfranchised by our political system and are seeking reform. A national survey of over 1,000 civically engaged millennials, published in the Roosevelt Institute’s Next Generation Blueprint for 2016, found that 80 percent of young Americans care more about a fair and inclusive democratic process than seeing their candidate win.
Since moving from Charlotte to Chapel Hill to attend college in 2012, I have seen firsthand how much more difficult voting has become. When I was 16 years old, I easily pre-registered to vote while applying for my driver’s license at the DMV, receiving my voter registration card in the mail shortly before my 18th birthday. In 2012, I was able to vote in my first election at the early voting site located in the dining hall on-campus at UNC Chapel Hill. Since then, the right to vote—the most basic right of our American democracy—has been under attack in North Carolina.
In 2013, Governor Pat McCrory and the Republican-controlled state legislature passed HB-589, a sweeping election reform bill that cut back early voting, eliminated same-day voter registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and instituted the new voter ID law. While same-day voter registration at early voting sites has been temporarily restored due to a court injunction, there has been no relief for the voter ID requirement. Under the guise of voter fraud prevention, the new law requires that all voters show one of six acceptable forms of photo identification at the polls. The myth of voter fraud is pervasive, yet voter fraud investigations have found only 31 cases of voter impersonation in more than 1 billion ballots cast. However, the State Board of Elections estimates that more than 300,000 of North Carolina’s 6.4 million registered voters lack the proper identification necessary to vote under this restrictive law.
The voter ID law is currently under review in federal court, as it disproportionately affects minority voters as well as women, young people, and the elderly. An analysis from the State Board of Elections confirms these findings, highlighting that while African-Americans represent 23 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina, they represent 34 percent of the registered voters without a recognized photo ID. Furthermore, women account for 54 percent of registered voters, but represent 64 percent of the state’s registered voters without ID.
It will also be more difficult for young people in the state to cast their ballots, as college IDs (even photo IDs) are not accepted for voting. In addition, on-campus voting has been eliminated for many colleges in NC, and the primary election day falls over spring break for many students. This election season in North Carolina—a prominent swing state—is particularly important, as we will elect new officials across all levels of government. Young people, who represent a growing proportion of the population in the U.S. in general and North Carolina in particular, have a profound opportunity to influence the results. In fact, North Carolina was just noted by NPR as one of the 10 states where millennials could sway the presidential election.
While voters in North Carolina face more challenges than ever in accessing the ballot box, we must mobilize to turn out the vote and elect representatives who will uphold our democratic rights. In states like Colorado, youth voter turnout has increased after the implementation of same-day registration, pre-registration, and online voter registration. In addition to these steps, North Carolina could also consider lowering the voting age to 16 for state/local elections, authorizing automatic voter registration, and repealing voter ID requirements. No decision has been made yet in the federal court case challenging North Carolina’s voter ID law, but it is clear that our lawmakers are fighting to hold onto their power in any way possible—including through voter suppression. With drastic restrictions on voting rights and gerrymandered maps that manipulate our votes, the fundamental ideals of democracy are not being upheld in North Carolina.