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The GOP wants to make same-day registration harder. Who would that affect most?

 Voting sign in Charlotte
Cole del Charco

Voting could soon look different in North Carolina, thanks to a sweeping elections bill filed by Republican lawmakers that would impact things like how absentee mail ballots are verified and when they are accepted.

This newsletter will focus on proposed changes to same-day registration, which allows people to register and cast a vote during in-person early voting.

The GOP proposal will undoubtedly make it harder for people to register and vote that way.

Two questions: How much harder?

And will the impact fall as heavily on Black and Democratic voters as media reports and Democrats have said?

First, some background:

North Carolina is one of 23 states (including Washington, D.C.) that allows people to register and vote at the same time. Most are blue states, but there are some red states like Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

North Carolina does not allow people to register and vote on Election Day itself, as the other states do.

 Map of states that allow same-day registration
Jennifer Lang

In 2020, 116,000 people applied for same-day registration out of 5.5 million North Carolinians who voted. That’s not a huge number — it’s around 2% — but in a state as close as North Carolina, 116,00 new voters can be a big deal (Donald Trump won the state that year by just under 75,000 votes.)

Today, someone can register and vote on the same day by showing a photo ID and a secondary document such as a utility bill or a bank statement.

The big change under the proposed legislation is that the address on the photo ID must match the address on the secondary document.

The hurdle is that people move all the time, which would be reflected on their utility bill, but perhaps not on their driver’s licenses. There would also be challenges for college students, who might have a driver’s license with a Charlotte home address but live at a different address on or near their campus.

If the two addresses don’t match, the person can still vote — but only as a provisional ballot. Those are set aside and counted later if the voter’s eligibility can be verified. The person must return to the county board of elections and show more identification. One possibility is two different, non-photo ID documents with the same address.

That’s not particularly difficult, in theory. The biggest obstacle, however, is having to make the in-person trip to the state elections board. That’s likely to discourage some people from trying (Picture a construction worker who works all day while the elections board is open).

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In the four general elections since 2016, the N.C. Board of Elections found that over 36% of voters who cast their ballot through same-day registration used IDs that would not be allowed under the new law.

So, who does that impact?

The New York Times last week noted that:

In 2016, when Republican state lawmakers tried to eliminate same-day registration, a Federal District Court found that it was “indisputable that African American voters disproportionately used” that method of voting. Black voters, the court found, made up 35% of same-day registrants in the 2012 election, while representing only 22% of the electorate.

That was from 2012.

The two most recent federal elections show a more complicated story.

Of the 116,000 people who used same-day registration in 2020, 20.5% were Black, compared with 20.1% of registered voters being Black.

In 2022, 17.7% of same-day registrations were Black voters.

At first glance, that doesn’t show a racial disparity. But the actual number of Black voters who used same-day registration is probably higher. The reason is that a large number of people — more than 25% — who used same-day registration in 2020 and 2022 are listed as “undesignated.”

Some of those undesignated voters are likely Black. We just don’t know how many.

If the racial data is a bit murky, then looking at who registered and voted on the same day by party registration is more clear.

Here is the current breakdown of North Carolina registered voters:

  • Unaffiliated 36%
  • Democratic 33.1%
  • Republican 30.1%

Here is the breakdown of people who used same-day registration in 2020:

  • Republican 37.1%
  • Democratic 33.7%
  • Unaffiliated 28.3%

That’s a pretty significant increase in GOP voters over the party’s share of overall registration. A lot of that was probably due to enthusiasm for Donald Trump, who visited the state numerous times and won on the strength of a massive turnout of more than 75% of registered voters.

Nearly 4,000 more Republicans than Democrats used same-day registration and voting in 2020.

 Trump on the campaign trail
David Boraks
With Trump on the ballot, GOP had the most people using same-day registration in 2020.

One can make a strong case that same-day registration allowed Republican Paul Newby to defeat Democrat Cheri Beasley by 401 votes in the race for chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. The victory helped the GOP narrow the Democrat’s hold on the state’s highest court from two to one seat, and then the GOP flipped the court in 2022.

The 2022 midterm election was sleepier.

Here is the party share of same-day registrations that year, which was highlighted by the U.S. Senate race between Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley.

  • Democratic 41.2%
  • Unaffiliated 32%
  • Republican 25.7%

When Trump is not on the ballot, it’s likely that same-day registration benefits Democrats.

But Trump has shown that Republicans can win with higher turnout, as well.

Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson said the current system of same-day registration produces only a minuscule number of rejected ballots. He said out of 10,000 same-day registrants in an election, he might have 10 that are rejected because of problems with their documentation.

“Very seldom do I get any of them back,” he said. “Because, remember, they are giving me more identification (for same-day) than when you register to vote.”

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
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