Voting in North Carolina just got easier

The U.S. Justice Department gave final approval last week to a new North Carolina law allowing people to register and vote on the same day during the state’s early voting period. All we’ll say is it’s about time.

The new voting measure was passed this summer by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Mike Easley, but because of the Voting Rights Act it required federal approval. That came last week.

The new law is supported by many progressive groups who believe there are simply too many barriers to voting, barriers that keep voter participation low and target particular groups more than others. North Carolina ranks 43rd in the U.S. in voter participation, according to one study. In the last five presidential elections, the average turnout in this state was 47.8 percent. The national average was 52 percent.

“Same-day registration provides a new tool for empowering people whose voices are not often heard,” says Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina. “North Carolina is among the bottom 15 states for voter participation, and our low rankings for health care, education, pay equity and other indicators mirror that low level of involvement by ordinary citizens.”

North Carolina is the first state in the South to allow same day registration and voting. It joins Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Those states’ laws go further by allowing same-day registration and voting on Election Day. Right now in North Carolina, early voting ends the Saturday before the election, which would probably become the last day to register and vote.

The groups most likely to benefit from the law are the young, those who have just moved to North Carolina, and the poor who have a difficult time with transportation. Democracy North Carolina says about 1 million people who are eligible to vote in the state aren’t registered. Of that number, about 400,000 are between 18 and 25.

There are several schools of thought on the movement over the last decade to improve voter turnout. One argues that a democracy must have informed citizens, and therefore those who miss registration deadlines and can’t follow other rules are better left not voting. Others believe that all votes are equal and those who are often just unable to meet arbitrary voting deadlines should be given more opportunities to register and to vote.

We would argue that the latter is true and that early registration requirements keep too many qualified people from voting. This new law should boost voter turnout in North Carolina and hopefully light a torch that other southern states will follow.

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