Haywood County precinct Chief Judge Debbie Stamey interacts with David Cairnes as he presents a photo ID at the Canton Public Library to vote in the 2016 primary election. Voter ID is not required to vote in North Carolina. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

The first round of ballots is set to go out in one week in North Carolina’s early-season primary, just as another legal battle over the state’s voter ID law has put a hold on the requirement — at least for now.

Counties will start mailing out absentee ballots Jan. 13. In-person early voting begins a month later on Feb. 13 for federal, state and local primaries.

Election Day for the primary is March 3, adding North Carolina’s presidential primary tally to 13 other Super Tuesday states.

The start of this year’s election season was in doubt several times over the past several months after an array of legal challenges. The courts provided one last wrinkle as state officials prepared to implement new ID rules for the 2020 cycle.

Judge blocks voter ID law

On the last day of 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs issued an injunction enjoining the state from implementing a new voter ID law for the primary elections and potentially preventing it from taking effect for the entire cycle. A trial in the case is pending.

In her ruling, Biggs said plaintiffs, the state chapter of the NAACP and six of its local chapters, had “made a clear showing” of harm from the law, Senate Bill 824.

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated that, if allowed to go into effect, S.B. 824 would likely work irreparable harm against them and, more broadly, minority voters in North Carolina’” the ruling stated.

She noted further that plaintiffs appear to have a strong argument that the law was drafted with discriminatory intent. The state’s previous voter ID law, part of a broader elections bill, was struck down on those grounds.

Opponents of the new law say it, too, was created with discriminatory intent and would have a disproportional effect on minority voters.

Biggs also called the state’s fulfillment of the law’s requirement for broad public information efforts “lackluster” and said the bulk of the work to inform the public remains undone.

After the ruling, the state Board of Elections announced it had pulled a planned mailing to voters explaining the new law.

Legislative leaders responded furiously and called for state Attorney General Josh Stein to appeal the ruling.

“The N.C. Department of Justice must ask for a stay in this case,” said a joint statement from Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

“This last-ditch effort from an unelected judge to stymie the implementation of voter ID and prohibit the legislature from defending the law it wrote is inappropriate.

“Legislative leaders have worked in good faith to accept numerous forms of IDs and allow for certain exclusions. The result is one of the most lenient voter ID laws in the nation.”

Last week, Stein agreed to appeal the ruling, but a statement released last Thursday by the department said it was too late to do so for the primary.

“However, to avoid any further voter confusion in the primary election in which absentee voting begins in just 11 days and to ensure that the primary election proceeds on schedule and is administered in an orderly manner, the department will not seek a stay of this injunction before the primary,” the statement read.

The voter ID law was introduced in a contentious lame-duck session after voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment adding photo identification to the requirements for voting.

The bill passed in early December 2018. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the measure, but Republican legislators voted to override the veto on Dec. 19, 2018, picking up one Democratic vote each in the House and Senate.

The law was modified this year after strict requirements prevented the use of IDs for dozens of state universities and local governments.

Registration ticks up again

As voting gears up, the latest round of voter registration data, released Dec. 28, illustrated that demographic and geographic trends in the voting population seen in 2018 continued in 2019.

Last year, the state added 273,288 voters, an increase of about 4%. The statewide registration breakdown stands at 37% Democratic, 33% unaffiliated and 30% Republican.

In his end-of-year analysis of the 2019 registration trends, Catawba College politics and history professor Michael Bitzer highlighted the increasing concentration of voters in urban counties, with Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford and Cumberland counties leading the way in new registrations.

“On Jan. 5, (2019), 14 counties made up half of the 6.5 million registered voters, but at the end of 2019, it took only 12 counties to make up half of the year-ending 6.8 million registered voters,” Bitzer noted in a blog post at his Old North State Politics site.

Those counties show a higher percentage of Democrats than the statewide average, with 39% registered Democrat, 34% unaffiliated and 26% Republican.

The highest concentration of Republican registrations is among a belt of suburban counties around the fast-growing urban regions.

“Registered Republicans were only 21% of the new urban voters compared to 34% registered as Democrats,” Bitzer said in a follow-up interview with Carolina Public Press.

“In suburban counties, it was the exact opposite: 34% registered Republicans to 23% registered Democratic.”

Generational voter registration trends

The demographic trend seen in 2018 continued as millennial and Generation Z voters, the two youngest cohorts of voters, continued to grow as a percentage of the voting population and continued to show a preference for registering as unaffiliated.

“Since the November 2016 election, North Carolina has seen over 1.3 million voters registered, with 60% of these new voters millennials or Generation Z,” Bitzer said.

“Among both of these generations, only 22% registered as Republican, 30% registered Democratic, and 47% registered unaffiliated.”

It’s a trend that he expects will continue through this year when registrations are expected to pick up because of heightened interest in this year’s presidential race.

“Of the total 6.8 million registered voters in North Carolina, 35% are under the age of 40 as of the beginning of 2020, and that percentage will likely only increase as we get closer to November,” Bitzer said.

If the younger voters can increase their turnout, he said, they stand to become the largest block of voters in 2020.

The racial makeup of the electorate is also shifting, Bitzer said.

“Among the new registered voters since the 2016 general election, 58% are white, 18% black/African American, and 23% are other races,” he said.

“This continuing diversification of the eligible voter pool may have an impact on November’s general election as well. Over 71,000 voters registered since 2016 are Hispanic/Latino.”

Outlook for legislative primaries

Redrawn districts, a number of high-profile retirements and legislators seeking higher office have contributed to a spike in open seats in state legislative races.

In the 2020 cycle, 14 seats are open in the House and nine in the Senate.

This year, all of the state’s 50 Senate seats and all but seven of the 120 House seats are contested in the general election in November, a scenario similar to 2018, when all 170 seats were contested.

In all, five House Democrats and one Republican face no opposition at all this year.

There are seven GOP primaries and eight for Democrats in the state Senate, and 23 primaries each in the House, numbers on par with 2016 but lower than the two presidential election cycles before that.

Eighteen House incumbents, nine in each party, face primary challenges. In the Senate, one Democrat and two Republican incumbents face primaries.

Rematches this year include two of the closest Senate races from the 2018 cycle, both of which are driven by the water quality concerns over GenX and other emerging contaminants in the Cape Fear River.

In Senate District 9, incumbent Harper Peterson, D-New Hanover, is facing a rematch with former GOP Sen. Michael Lee, who lost in 2018 to Peterson by 231 votes out of roughly 87,000 cast.

Upriver in Cumberland County, former GOP Sen. Wesley Meredith has filed to run in District 19 against incumbent Democrat Kirk DeViere, who ousted Meredith by 433 votes out of the 60,000 vote total.

Democrats were able to crack the GOP’s supermajorities in both chambers in the 2018 elections and are aiming at retaking one or both chambers in the crucial 2020 cycle, which will determine which party controls the legislature during redistricting in 2021.

Democrats would have to win six more seats in the House and five in the Senate to retake the chambers.

This year’s battle over control of the state legislature is also attracting national attention and money, with both parties planning an amped-up campaign.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s point organization for state legislature races, has stepped up fundraising for efforts in key states, including North Carolina, and are actively recruiting campaign coordinators for state Senate races here.

The group’s counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Counterpart, is also preparing for a hard fight in North Carolina.

“The outcomes of 2020 state elections will shape the future of our nation for the next decade – and it’s up to our team to make sure state Republicans have the resources they need to win where it matters most,” said RSLC President Austin Chambers in a recent statement also announcing record fundraising for 2019.

Outside groups focusing on North Carolina include the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an organization led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which has backed legal challenges over gerrymandering.

The organization announced it will target North Carolina legislative races in the 2020 cycle but has yet to name the specific races.

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email info@carolinapublicpress.org.

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