Many voting rights activists breathed a sigh of relief this year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned numerous provisions of North Carolina’s 2013 election law. The law had instituted a strict voter ID requirement, curtailed the early voting period and eliminated one-stop voting and registration, among other provisions.
Critics argued that if the law were fully implemented it would lead to a sharp reduction in voting by racial minorities and younger citizens. The 4th Circuit agreed, saying that the “new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” On emergency appeal, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4 to 4 on granting a stay, which meant that the 4th Circuit’s decision will stand for the 2016 election.
But there is an overlooked yet consequential provision of the law that the court did not strike down: the removal of the straight-ticket option from North Carolina ballots. As in 2014, there will be no such option on the ballot in 2016.
North Carolina had allowed voters to cast a straight ticket since its initial adoption of the secret ballot in 1909. More than 40 percent of voters used this provision in 2010, and nearly 58 percent did so in 2012.
Straight-ticket voting was particularly prevalent in counties that had a larger African American population. The pattern is striking:
The absence of a straight-ticket option could be consequential. North Carolina has a long ballot, with highly competitive races for governor, a U.S. Senate seat and the presidency. There are a minimum of 15 partisan offices on the ballot this fall, 14 of which could have been chosen with the straight-ticket vote option in previous years. Without the opportunity to cast a straight-ticket vote, many North Carolina voters will need more time than usual to cast their ballot.
Increased wait times will likely have at least three effects:
First, polling places will have unusually long lines. Our analysis of a survey conducted by the North Carolina State Board of Elections after the 2014 election showed that counties that had previously had high levels of straight-ticket voting had longer wait times in 2014. A separate analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that North Carolina had the longest wait times in the country in 2014, which was an election with a considerably shorter ballot than will be the case this year.
Second, long lines will deter people from voting. Five of the six largest counties in North Carolina reported wait times in excess of an hour either during the early voting period or on Election Day 2014. Our analysis suggests that vote deterrence is most likely in highly populated areas with larger concentrations of African American voters.
Third, that combination of long lines and the inability to cast a straight ticket will likely increase the number of people who fail to fully complete the ballot — a phenomenon known as “ballot roll-off. ” The average level of ballot roll-off rose from 11.6 percent in 2010, which was the last midterm year with straight-ticket voting, to 17.8 percent in 2014, the first election without straight-ticket voting. With a longer ballot in 2016, it is not inconceivable that 25 percent will fail to complete their ballot. Once again, we expect this to be concentrated in highly populated areas with larger concentrations of African American voters.
Erik J. Engstrom is a professor of political science at the University of California at Davis. Jason M. Roberts is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.