There’s an election in the offing, and over the next few weeks candidates and their allies will be ramping up the rhetoric. North Carolinians settling in to watch some television might want to buckle their seat belts while they ride out the onslaught of campaign commercials.
This year, though, there’s a catch. To vote in the May 6 primary, people who aren’t already registered with their county board of elections have to meet a deadline of Friday, April 11, to sign up. Otherwise, they’ll be out of luck – no matter how much they might want to have a say once they learn more about who’s running and what’s at stake.
In recent years past, new voters could register and cast a ballot on the same day during the state’s early voting period, which lasts until three days before an election. But the General Assembly abolished same-day registration as part of its 2013 overhaul of elections laws – an overhaul that in several respects makes it less convenient to vote. With the newly imposed registration deadline, some people who didn’t get the word or who haven’t yet focused on the races now unfolding are likely to feel the squeeze.
It’s not people for whom voting is an ingrained habit who stand to be affected. It’s people who haven’t been regular voters – perhaps because they weren’t old enough, or because they’ve moved around or were too busy with daily demands. Unless they learned about the deadline and took care of business, this is another election they’ll be sitting out.
Chances are, this is a group weighted toward young people and those who in the past might have registered and voted on the same day, encouraged by campaigns’ get-out-the-vote drives. The changes are bundled with a law that requires voters, starting in 2016, to show a photo ID. Republicans who control the legislature pushed the changes over Democrats’ objections that Democratic-leaning voters were being targeted. Whether the Republican-sponsored moves amount to an unconstitutional infringement on people’s right to vote is a question the federal courts have been asked to decide.
Register or else
Several efforts are under way to spread the word about the pending voter registration deadline. For example, the Council of Churches is involved in Operation Jumpstart the Vote, headed by the election reform group Democracy North Carolina. Volunteers with Operation Jumpstart have been working to inform the public about the new rules and to make sure people eligible to vote are properly registered.
The State Board of Elections and most county election boards have registration materials available online. Completed forms must be postmarked no later than April 11 or delivered to county board offices no later than 5 p.m. on that date.
Depending on where voters live and which party they’re registered with, they’ll be choosing party nominees for various posts. The race that so far has garnered the most attention is the statewide contest among several Republicans for the nomination to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking a second term. Voters who are registered as unaffiliated with a political party can choose to vote in one of the party primaries.
Voters on May 6 also will choose two finalists in the three-person race for the state Supreme Court seat now held by Justice Robin Hudson. Her two challengers are Eric Levinson, a Superior Court judge from Mecklenburg County, and Jeanette Doran of Raleigh, chair of a state board that hears appeals related to unemployment insurance.
The judicial candidates are not identified by party on the ballot, and anyone who’s registered may vote. Three other races for seats on the seven-person Supreme Court have drawn only two contenders each, and they’ll be decided in the Nov. 2 general election when the Hudson seat also will be filled.
Elections must take place within a framework of rules keeping them orderly, honest and fair. But our democratic republic works best when more, rather than fewer, people are able to participate in choosing their leaders. That’s a lesson rooted in our country’s history and reflecting how far we’ve come since the days when the electorate was limited to white male property owners. Let’s hope the people of North Carolina take note of new rules and new deadlines and do what they need to do so that their voices can be heard.