Do you remember the first time you registered to vote? Was it a momentous occasion or a run-of-the-mill form submission at the DMV?
What about the first time you voted? Do you recall where you were, how you got there and who was on the ballot?
Many of us grew up accompanying our parents to the polls; we have a driver’s license, we have easy access to transportation, and there are few barriers to voting. But that is not the case for everyone. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation believes that the accessibility of voting must not be measured by how easy it is for the majority of people to register and vote, but by how easy it is for those who face the most obstacles to voting – because every voice matters.
Last year the NC General Assembly passed H589, a bill that made numerous changes to the State’s voting processes. While much of the media focus on this bill has been about the requirement that all North Carolina voters have a Voter ID beginning in 2016, less attention has been given to the ways in which the bill broadly impacts young adults. In particular, there are four aspects of H589 that could negatively impact of the ability of young people ages 18 to 29 to get to the polls.
First, H589 eliminated Same-Day Registration (SDR), which allowed a citizen to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period. To put the importance of SDR to young adults in perspective: in 2012, people 18 to 25 were 12 percent of registered voters, but 33 percent of those who used SDR[i]. According to Democracy North Carolina’s analysis of NC State Board of Elections data, 42,200 voters under the age of 30 used Same-Day Registration to cast ballots; 44 percent of the 97,100 first-time voters using SDR were 18 to 29. The primary purpose of SDR, which began in North Carolina in 2007, was to make it easier for people to register to vote. People often think to register to vote when a major election is upon them; yet, one must register at least 25 days before an election in North Carolina, so being able to register and vote at the same time is important. The elimination of SDR in North Carolina reduces the ease of access to voting and, based on 2012 numbers, disproportionately impacts young adults.
Second, H589 eliminated pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds. For several years, North Carolina had allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to “pre-register” to try and increase the number of citizens who would be registered to vote by the time they turned 18. According to Democracy NC’s analysis, 60,000 teenagers became registered to vote in the November 2012 election due to pre-registration. But because pre-registration is no longer allowed, these changes are, once again, making it more difficult to bring young adults into the democratic process.
The highest profile change brought about by H589 is the voter Identification requirement that will begin in 2016. Starting in 2016, acceptable forms[ii] of photo ID in order to vote will include:
- Unexpired NC driver’s license, learner’s permit or provisional license;
- Unexpired NC DMV ID card for non-drivers;
- Unexpired U.S. passport;
- U.S. military or veterans ID;
- Tribal card from federally or state recognized tribe; or
- Out-of-state driver’s license (only valid if voter registration occurred within 90 days of the election).
College student IDs, public or private, do not count as acceptable forms of ID. Note that out-of-state driver’s licenses only count if the person registered within 90 days of the election. If one registered to vote in North Carolina before that (say, for an election two years ago), the out-of-state driver’s license will not be a valid ID for voting purposes, and one will need to acquire a NC driver’s license, present one of the other IDs listed above or obtain a free Voter ID card from the NC Division of Motor Vehicles (NCDMV) if s/he can provide appropriate documentation (see http://ncdot.gov/dmv/driver/id/ for additional information).
State law says that any student may claim residency in his/her college town if the student does not intend to move back home after graduation, even if the student does not intend to stay in the college town after graduation[iii]. A student with an out-of-state driver’s license may register to vote, but since voting is a sign of residency, the NCDMV will expect those students to get a NC driver’s license within 60 days, which is what is required of anyone moving to NC with an out-of-state license. Registered voters with no valid ID can cast a provisional ballot. But for it to count, one would have to go to the elections board within six days (or nine days in presidential elections) and show a valid ID.
Confused yet? NC has thousands of college students who have moved here from out of state, and it is easy to see how the voter ID requirement has the potential to cause confusion, particularly if you are 18 or 19 and a first time voter.
Finally, a little-known provision in H589 that may disproportionately affect young people has to do with “provisional ballots” — that is, if you go to the wrong polling place, can you still vote and will your vote count? Before H589, the answer was “yes.” If you went to the wrong polling place, but were in the right county, you could still vote and have it count for the races that applied in your own precinct (e.g. Presidential election, congressional election, gubernatorial race). Under H589, if you go to the wrong polling place and vote, no part of your vote will count. According to Democracy NC’s analysis of State Board of Elections data, young people were over-represented among the 7,500 ballots that partially counted in 2012 due to out-of-precinct voting. Thus, it is likely that young people will be over-represented in the number of ballots that are thrown out due to the new voting law. Looking solely at the cohort of college students in NC, it is easy to see why they might cast more provisional ballots. They tend to move to a new dorm or apartment each year, which changes their address and potentially their precinct. They may try to vote at the same precinct where they voted last year, but under H589, if they vote at the wrong precinct, those ballots will be thrown out.
In addition to the changes that are happening as a result of H589, there are other changes occurring in the state that could diminish the number of young adults voting in North Carolina elections. These changes include a decrease in the number of days allotted to early voting and the removal of polling places on the campuses of Appalachian State University, NC State University and Winston-Salem State University. A Superior Court Judge recently ruled that the Watauga County Board of Elections must re-instate the early voting on-campus polling site at Appalachian State University.[iv]
One way that North Carolina could consider helping to make voting more accessible, especially for young people, would be to allow online voter registration. Twenty states currently offer online voter registration and another four states have passed legislation to develop such a process. Nationally, 93% of people ages 18 to 29 used the internet with some regularity as of 2010, compared to 74% of all adults[v]. Given the high percentage of young adults who go online, establishing an online voter registration option in North Carolina would make for a more accessible way to bring young people into the democratic process.
We each have our own stories about the first time we voted. Perhaps you were an adult who first went to the ballot box after the Voting Rights Act was passed; or maybe you had recently turned 18; or maybe you were jaded by politics and stayed away from the polls until something or someone finally lured you into exercising your right to vote. Whatever your story, find a young person who is not yet engaged with the democratic process and help her or him participate. Our future, and theirs, depends on it.