Equal access to all

Published 9:14 am Thursday, April 4, 2013

To the Editor:

Efforts are underway at the N.C. General Assembly to make it harder for citizens to vote in North Carolina. This is a troubling trend that threatens to undo some of the strides our state has made over the last several years in improving voter participation.

North Carolina’s voter turnout rate rose significantly between 2004 and 2008. In 2012, we were largely able to maintain that momentum with a turnout rate just shy of 70 percent. Compared to current voting trends across the nation, 70 percent turnout is laudable, but it still shows that almost one-third of all registered voters in the state chose not to vote last year.

That means more than 2 million registered voters decided, for one reason or another, not to cast a ballot in an election that saw North Carolinians voting for president, governor, Congress, the General Assembly and state Supreme Court. Perhaps instead of trying to make it harder to vote, we should be searching for solutions to help facilitate greater voter participation.

Several pieces of legislation proposed recently seek to curtail or eliminate some very popular programs in North Carolina. Perhaps most surprisingly, a bill introduced in March would shorten the period for early voting, which is widely used by voters across the state. In fact, during the 2012 election more than 2.5 million voters cast a ballot during the early voting period, well more than half of all votes cast.

Early voting is a strongly supported, well-used program that adds a level of convenience to voters and helps cut down on long lines on Election Day. Shortening the period of time it’s available seems shortsighted.

We saw what happened in Florida last year when that state cut back on early voting hours and voters had to stand in line for several hours — in some cases as much as eight hours — to cast a ballot. Now, Florida’s governor is retracting his support for reducing early voting. We don’t need to learn that lesson the hard way here in North Carolina. We know early voting works.

In addition to shortening the early voting period, the proposed legislation would also mandate that counties could not allow early voting to be held on Sundays. While some less populous counties may not feel it necessary to have Sunday hours available during early voting, the state should not forbid local officials from making the determination themselves based on local needs.

Finally, the bill aims to eliminate same-day registration, which allows citizens to register to vote or update their registration during the early voting period. These resources are available to all North Carolina voters as a way to make access to the ballot more convenient, without sacrificing security.

Our state government should be in the business of making voting inclusive and providing equal access to all citizens who wish to participate in the process. This proposed legislation would likely lead to longer lines at early voting sites and on Election Day by cutting a program so popular that more than half of all voters in 2012 opted to use it.

The General Assembly’s attention would be better spent elsewhere, rather than tinkering with a voting system that has done a good job of fostering civic participation across the state.

Brent Laurenz

Executive Director

NC Center for Voter Education