But state officials also voted to uphold a decision by a different GOP-controlled county board that’s likely to affect student voters. That was the move in Watauga County, in the mountainous western part of the state, to close an early-voting site on the campus of Appalachian State University. The county board had earlier approved another Republican plan to combine three general election polling sites into one—a venue with limited parking, remote from the campus—but backtracked on that decision before the state board could rule on it. (Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Pasquotank County was covered under Section 5 of the VRA—meaning changes to its election laws required federal “preclearance”—while Watauga County was not.)
In the days after the county board’s meeting, Charlotte’s NBC affiliate sent reporter Jeremy Markovich to Boone, where Appalachian State is located, to check out the story. Here’s one of the segments featuring his reporting—pay attention in particular to the interviews with the GOP chairman of the elections board and the elections director:
When Markovich asks Luke Eggers, the board chairman, to explain the reason for the change, Eggers replies, “It makes it more efficient. It makes it easier for us to canvass, makes it easier for us to staff.” Asked if he means easier for the board of elections or for voters, Eggers adds, “I believe it’s going to be easier for both.”
Cut to the longtime elections director, who tells a different story: “I cannot say that it would save either time or money,” she tells Markovich. “It would be challenging to us to vote 9,000 people in one location.” The segment could have been even more pointed—maybe by following up further to ask Eggers, “How, exactly?”—but it was a telling juxtaposition set up by Markovich’s questioning.
As this story spreads to other counties, reporters in North Carolina should be prepared to get local officials on the record about proposed changes—and to press them to explain why they’re needed.
At the state level, nailing down McCrory and lawmakers who backed the sweeping law has often proved difficult. The governor released a 95-second video defending the bill when he signed it, but he only focused on the Voter ID aspect, as Slate’s David Weigel pointed out. He’s continued that approach in op-ed columns.
Some North Carolina reporters, like WRAL’s Laura Leslie, have made a point of highlighting McCrory’s obfuscation as he continues to ignore the many other aspects of his sweeping law. He is, she wrote, “sticking to voter ID with the same comparisons he’s been using since his last campaign.”
I’ve seen less scrutiny of specific state legislators in the coverage, and less emphasis on getting them on the record. The lack of answers has left the opinion pages to do much of the heavy lifting in explaining why Republicans, in a state where voter participation has been on the rise, might overhaul the voting laws. Here’s how News & Observer columnist Rob Christensen answered that question:
North Carolina had the biggest increase in the country in voter participation between 2004 and 2008. But as far as the Republicans were concerned that was a bad thing, because many of the new voters were young voters attracted to the candidacy of Barack Obama. In 2008, 74 percent of North Carolina voters between ages 18-29 voted for Obama, according to exit polls.
…Republicans made a major push to win over young voters last year, putting operatives in the state at fairs and NASCAR events, and using social media to tell them how bad the economy was under Obama. Despite their efforts, Obama still won 67 percent of the 18-29 age group in North Carolina in November, according to exit polls.
So Republicans moved to Plan B - if you can’t win over young people, make it harder for them to vote.
Be passionate, and don’t cede the story to the national media
John L. Robinson, former editor of the Greensboro News & Record and now an influential blogger, has been offering advice to North Carolina newspapers about how best to explain what’s happening in Raleigh. Back in July, he called for “fist-pounding editorials” about the (then-proposed) voting restrictions and other parts of the GOP agenda, published on the front page of in-state newspapers. He told me some papers have done it. Most haven’t.