For African Americans in North Carolina, attempting to cast a ballot is increasingly a convoluted obstacle course. Ever since the state passed the Voter Information Verification Act in 2012, which made photo ID mandatory and ended Election Day voter registration, the path to the polling booth has become trickier. Now researchers for insightus, a North Carolina-based data analysis nonprofit, have released a new report that adds to our understanding of just how tough it’s become for African Americans to vote in the state. Turns out, it takes longer for them to get to the polling booth than it used to, too.
The insightus report finds, for example, that there are actually three more early-voting polling locations in the state than there were in 2012. But despite those additions, early-voting locations are now located farther away from black communities than they were before. The average white voter's distance from the nearest early-voting site increased by just a few yards in 2014, while the average distance for black voters increased by a quarter mile.
Now consider this: An estimated 16 percent of black households in North Carolina do not have access to an automobile, while only 4 percent of white households do not. Blacks who work outside the home are also three times more likely than whites to rely on public transportation. These two charts, from the report, show how such racial disparities play out on a per-county basis in North Carolina.
William Busa, president of insightus, calls this difference “electoral apartheid” in his organization’s report. The “distance-to-poll” disparity finding suggests a poll tax placed on black voters thanks to the disproportionate burden they carry throughout the state in terms of time and money spent trying to get to the polls.
Distance-to-poll also matters to friends of an equitable society because it represents a cost of voting. That cost is measured not merely in the gasoline consumed, or the bus fare, or the shoe leather invested in traveling to the poll, but also in what an economist would call the opportunity cost involved. Time spent traveling to the poll and waiting in line is time not spent at work, and therefore income not earned. That's a cost which weighs far more heavily on low income voters, like the counter worker at McDonald's, than it does on affluent voters such as the owner of a fast-food franchise. Viewed in this light, inequitable distance-to-poll changes amount to a kind of poll tax—something which an abundance of case law has established is unconstitutional.
Chris Kromm, at the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies, recently wrote about another study, this one from Cal Tech and MIT, that further quantifies the costs and burdens placed on voters due to long waits to vote. Reducing the number of opportunities to vote by cutting early-voting hours or changing/closing polling locations leads to longer waits in line—another cost to tack on top of the long trip to get there. Southern states, including North Carolina, carry some of the longest wait times for voters. According to the report, long waits during the 2012 election ended up costing the nation over $544 million in lost hourly wages and economic productivity.
Decisions about where polling stations are placed are made within each county, and North Carolina’s county officials relocated 114 of the state’s 364 early-voting polling stations since 2012. Changes like that often go unnoticed, sometimes because they, as MSNBC’s Zachary Roth writes, play out “as a series of separate, apparently minor local-level tweaks.”
Below are a couple of maps from Busa’s report that show what the voter-commuter poll tax looks like in some of those counties for black voters.
Orange County, North Carolina, pictured below, is a Democratic enclave where the city of Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina are both located. One early-voting site that was once right on the UNC campus was relocated deeper inside Chapel Hill, which makes voting for college students more inconvenient. Black college students in the state have amped up their mobilization around voting issues the past few years because of problems like this.
Mecklenberg County, captured below, is heavily segregated both racially and economically. Median household incomes in this county among African Americans are just half that of whites. Barack Obama won the county in the past two elections by wide margins. But today, with fewer early-voting sites in black communities than there were in 2012, African Americans there have longer trips to the polls—with an average distance of .2 miles for black voters compared to .03 miles for white voters.
Busa writes in his report that though that gap may seem small, it’s a distance that can make a difference in the upcoming election when combined with other election-law changes.
A voter ID requirement here, a paring of early-voting days there, the confusion everywhere of discovering that last election's site has disappeared, and much more. Add to the mix that two-tenths-of-a-mile increase in distance-to-poll—almost beneath notice in isolation—and a knife edge-balanced county like Mecklenburg can almost be relied upon to fall the way the party in power wishes it to.