27 other things the North Carolina voting law changes

September 8, 2013

Update: This story has been corrected to accurately describe a 2008 election for Insurance Commissioner. An earlier version contained inaccurate information.

When North Carolina Republicans passed a package of election law reforms this year, Democrats cried foul. As in other states, the new reforms required voters to show identification at the polls, and cut the number of early voting days when polling stations would be open before an election.

But the package also contained several revisions to state election laws that go well beyond requiring an identification and cutting voting days — including some that will likely have a bigger impact on the future of the state’s election results than either of the best-known provisions.

Together, the early voting and voter identification provisions take up fewer than four and a half pages of text. The bill is 49 pages long. Here are 27 other provisions you can find in the other 44 and a half pages:

Ballot order is no longer a rigged game. Countless studies show the candidate who’s listed first in a given race gets some small advantage from voters who just check a box instead of making an informed decision (And by countless, we really mean too many to link to here; just Google “Ballot Order Study” and start reading). Previous North Carolina law mandated that the party with the highest number of registered voters statewide got their candidates mentioned first; there are 2,766,467 registered Democrats and 1,989,597 registered Republicans in the state, meaning Democratic names always come first. Section 31.1 of the new law puts the name of the candidate who shares a party with the governor on top. That means Republicans will show up at the top of the ballot in 2014, but that Democrats will the next time they elect a governor.

Don’t count on straight-ticket voting. North Carolina was one of a dozen states remaining that allowed a voter to check a single box to count a vote for every candidate of one party. Check the Democratic box and you cast a ballot for every Democrat from U.S. Senate to city council member or sanitation commissioner. The new law ends that option, which some Republicans think will remove a big hurdle they had in winning down-ballot races. Democrats have pointed out that African American voters disproportionately use straight-ticket voting. (It’s not like Democrats have always been purely altruistic on the straight-ticket option; after 1972, when Richard Nixon thumped George McGovern by 40 points in North Carolina, Democrats exempted the presidential race from the straight-ticket box. And not all Democrats oppose ending straight-ticket voting: New Hampshire Democrats abolished straight-ticket voting after they took over in 2007.)

There are going to be a lot more poll-watchers in North Carolina next election. Under earlier laws, Election Day poll monitors had to be residents of the precincts they were observing. Section 11.1 of the bill allows each party to appoint an additional 10 poll watchers who live in the same county as the precinct they’re observing. That will help Democrats send new monitors from Charlotte into heavily Republican rural areas of Mecklenburg County, say, or Republicans to send monitors from other precincts around Raleigh, but still in Wake County, to heavily Democratic black precincts downtown.

Similarly, any challenges to a voter or a ballot can now be made by a wider segment of the population. Previously, voters could only challenge other votes cast within their own precinct. Section 20.2 allows a registered voter to challenge a ballot cast within his or her home county, not just his or her own precinct. And any citizen registered to vote in North Carolina can challenge another voter’s registration, regardless of which county either voter lives in, under Section 20.1.

Public financing is gonzo. State tax returns used to have a $3 check-off box, which allowed voters to put money into a fund that went to state parties. The money was doled out on the basis of how many registered voters a party had, so Democrats were getting a much larger share of the cash than Republicans. Section 38.1 ends that practice, meaning state Democratic and Republican Parties are going to have to fend for themselves. The section also ends public financing of judicial elections, which Democrats see as the first step toward a national campaign against judges on behalf of some conservative business interests.

Students as young as 16 can no longer pre-register to vote. North Carolina used to encourage students who were at least 16 to register, which some schools used as a civics lesson. Now, students can only register if they will turn 18 by Election Day, under Section 12.1.

Don’t count on online registration. Section 13.1 rewrites state law to explicitly exclude signatures on applications generated by computer programs written by third-party groups. Only electronically-captured signatures on forms offered by state agencies, like the Board of Elections or the Department of Motor Vehicles, will be considered valid. It’s known as the “wet ink” provision.

Donors can give bigger checks, but not much bigger. In 1982, the state legislature capped donations to political candidates at $4,000. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $9,685 in today’s dollars. But the new election law doesn’t go that far; it raises contribution limits to $5,000 and allows the state Board of Elections to adjust that amount on a biennial basis, much like the Federal Election Commission does for federal candidates.

And corporations can give a little more money too. The new law allows a party to use unlimited donations from individuals and corporations on things like rent for party office space, utilities, and up to three administrative staffers who don’t work on political activities (Section 43.1 specifically names accountants, human resource staffers or those who prepare and file campaign finance reports). At the federal level, this type of spending used to be covered by what was called “soft money,” before the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act nixed soft money.

But lobbyists can’t touch the cash. Lobbyists were already prohibited from contributing directly to candidates, but Section 47.1 of the new law prohibits them from bundling contributions from other donors, or even to possess a contribution; that is, their clients can’t hand them a check to deliver to a member of the legislature. That may be the most aggressive ban on lobbyist activity in the country.

Don’t bother standing by your ad. Sections 44.1 and 44.2 repeal the requirement that a candidate appear in his or her own campaign ad and utter those magic words, “I’m Candidate X, and I approve this message.” Now, only a small text claim of credit is required in television advertising. That’s got to be especially galling to U.S. Rep. David Price, the North Carolina Democrat who pushed the stand-by-your-ad rule at the federal level.

The bill actually makes it easier to vote by absentee ballot. North Carolina was already a no-fault absentee state, meaning a voter didn’t have to offer an excuse to receive an absentee ballot. The law codifies that, and it requires absentee ballot request forms to be posted online; state parties and voter registration groups can copy the request forms, too. The law even allows county boards of election to deliver absentee ballot request forms and the ballots themselves to voters who are disabled or ill. Those who cast absentee votes won’t have to show an identification, according to Section 4.1 (It did not escape state Democrats’ notice that more Republicans vote by absentee, while more Democrats cast early ballots).

North Carolina will no longer pay for a voter registration drive, thanks to Section 19.1. The state has sponsored its own effort to register new voters every two years since 1984; that year, turnout in North Carolina jumped 3.4 percentage points over the 1980 turnout levels (The registration drive was a project of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, who narrowly lost a pitched battle with Sen. Jesse Helms in 1984).

Speaking of voter registration, groups trying to sign up new voters can no longer pay employees based on the number of registrations they turn in under Section 14.1. Some groups that try to register voters pay their employees for each completed form turned in, which can lead to fraudulent registrations. Studies show voter ID requirements probably don’t prevent much fraud, but there’s actual proof of outside groups turning in fake registration forms: Signature gatherers working for the liberal group ACORN in 2008 turned in forms that registered most of the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys to vote in Nevada. That case ended in a guilty plea in 2011. Voter registration groups can still pay their signature gatherers, but they have to pay by the hour or a salary, not by the signature.

There will be a paper trail. Eventually. By 2018, the state’s voting machines will all be required to include a paper ballot, under Section 30.3. That’s right, a ballot, not a receipt; other sections within Part 30 eliminate references to “records,” making clear the legislature wants a real paper ballot produced. Why wait so long? Because most voting machines have to be replaced about every five years, and to give voting machine manufacturers time to get the technology right.

It’ll be cheaper for third parties to get on the ballot. The new law requires candidates for statewide office to collect 10,000 signatures or the signatures of 5 percent of the number of voters registered within their party, down from a 10 percent threshold, if they don’t want to pay the filing fee, under Section 22.1.

About that photo ID requirement: Every voter can get a free identification card. Part 3 waives fees for the legally blind, those over 70 years old, anyone whose driver’s license has been canceled because of a disability, the homeless — and everyone else. Sections 3.1.5 and 3.1.6 allow anyone, whether they’re registered to vote already (3.1.5) or showing up to register (3.1.6) to get a free identity card without paying a fee simply by signing a declaration that they are eligible to vote. Once their declaration and registration are verified, the state won’t be allowed to charge them a fee (Section 3.2, paragraph c). That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get an ID card, but it’s available.

Sen. Kay Hagan can rest easy, or at least easier: The photo ID requirement won’t go into effect until the 2016 election. In 2014, voters without a photo ID will be reminded that they will need one two years later, but the requirement doesn’t actually go into effect until January 1, 2016, under Section 6.2 of the law.

And even in 2016, voters without an identification will still be able to cast a ballot. They’ll have to cast a provisional ballot, which doesn’t include every local race, but at least it includes top-of-the-ticket contests common to voters across the state, according to Section 2.1, subsection (c). Voters who go to the wrong precinct will be able to cast a provisional ballot too, under Section 49.3. Those provisional ballots would only be counted if the voter’s eligibility can be verified after the fact.

Now, let’s take on the early voting section. Democrats complain that Republicans are using their ability to control the location of early voting sites to give themselves an unfair advantage. By that logic, Democrats have had an unfair advantage since 1994, the first general election after Jim Hunt took office. That’s because the governor appoints members of county elections boards; in each county, regardless of its past voting performance or any other factor, two of the three board of elections members are members of the governor’s party, and the third is a member of the opposite party. For the last 20 years, Democrats have controlled county boards of elections because they controlled the governor’s mansion.

There aren’t actually any cuts to the number of early voting hours within the bill. The bill cuts the number of days on which early voting can occur, but it mandates that each polling place must be open the same number of hours as they were in 2010 and 2012 — remember, when those hours were controlled by Democratic elections boards. Sections 25.1 and 25.2 require early voting booths to be open just as many hours in midterm years as they were in 2010, and for just as many hours in a presidential year as they were in 2012. So a polling place might be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which could actually help more voters who work regular hours get to the polls before or after work. Democrats point out that they lose a full weekend of early voting, which could hurt. In North Carolina, African Americans overwhelmingly choose early voting over absentee voting.

There might be fewer runoffs under the new law. Candidates in partisan primaries currently have to get 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff with their next-closest challenger; Section 28.1 commissions a study of whether to reduce that 40 percent threshold. Proponents of lowering the threshold say it would avoid costly runoffs in down-ballot races that get little attention. Conveniently, it could also help the GOP nominate more moderate statewide elected officials; runoffs are frequently the venues in which unelectable conservatives turn out en masse and swamp more moderate, establishment-backed candidates.

The law ends at least one shenanigan that’s occasionally used by longtime incumbents to pick their successors. In 2008, Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Jim Long, who had served since 1985, didn’t announce his retirement until filing week. Wayne Goodwin, his assistant, filed papers to run, and he narrowly beat another Democrat who filed at the last minute. Goodwin won the general election too, but the new law won’t let any other candidates pull the same stunt. Sections 21.1, 21.2 and 21.3 require candidates to drop out of a race at least three days before the end of filing.

In the event of a Senate vacancy, the law requires North Carolina’s governor to appoint a member of the same party as the most recent occupant of the seat. If that had been the law in New Jersey this year, when Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) passed away, Gov. Chris Christie would have had to appoint a Democrat, not a Republican, to fill the seat (Wyoming operates under a similar provision; when Sen. Craig Thomas, a Republican, died in 2007, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal was required to appoint a Republican to Thomas’s seat. He chose Sen. John Barrasso).

The law moves North Carolina’s presidential primary way up the calendar. Section 35.1 requires the state to hold its nominating contests the Tuesday following South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary, which traditionally takes place on a Saturday. That’s not going to make South Carolina very happy, but North Carolinians point out that it’s not so bad for candidates; the two states share so many of the same media markets — the Charlotte, Myrtle Beach and Asheville markets reach voters in both states — that candidates can just keep their ads on TV for a few more days.

Republicans have a Ron Paul escape hatch. Under previous law, the chair of each political party was allowed to decide which presidential candidates made it onto the state’s primary ballot, and which candidates got the boot. Then, ardent supporters of Rep. Ron Paul took over state parties in Iowa and Nevada, spooking North Carolinians: If a Ron Paul fan became chair of the state GOP, he or she could only allow, say, Sen. Rand Paul on the ballot. Section 36.1 of the new law gives the state Board of Elections the power to put additional candidates on the ballot if those candidates are “generally advocated and recognized in the news media … as candidates for the nomination by that party.”

Finally, the bill cleans up a lot of messy language in earlier election law. Section 53.1 defines an election cycle as a two-year period beginning Jan. 1, instead of the day after an election to the following election day; that helps accountants pay people in the proper cycles. Section 51.1 eliminates instant runoff voting, which turned into a complete disaster in a judicial race last year.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · September 6, 2013