Getting 16- and 17-year-olds preregistered was good public policy that helped increased youth turnout in elections, a Duke University professor testified Wednesday in a closely watched federal trial in Winston-Salem on North Carolina’s controversial election law.
D. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University, testified Wednesday in U.S. District Court that registration represents the largest obstacle for young people to vote. She said she conducted an analysis of Florida’s experience with preregistration and found that 16- and 17-year-olds who preregister are more likely to vote in the next election after they turn 18.
Young people who get a chance to preregister are usually in high school and are typically more engaged in politics, Hillygus testified. She said young people have institutional support through civics groups to reinforce and bolster efforts to preregister.
In 2012, Hillygus said, 150,000 young people preregistered, and a disproportionate number of young people who did so were black. She said that having preregistration lowers the obstacles that get in the way of young people voting.
Under cross-examination by state attorney Alexander Peters, Hillygus pushed back against the idea that the preregistration process causes confusion. She did acknowledge that it is possible that a young person who preregisters might mistakenly think he or she could vote before turning 18. But she said that’s not likely; most young people know that they can’t vote until they turn 18, she added.
Hillygus’ testimony came on the third day of a trial being watched nationally because it is one of the first challenges to election law changes that came after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 two years ago.
The N.C. NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs, including those from Winston-Salem, are suing North Carolina and Gov. Pat McCrory over the 2013 Voter Information Verification Act, commonly referred to in the trial as House Bill 589. The law eliminated preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds. The law also reduced early voting days from 17 to 10 and prohibited out-of-precinct provisional voting.
Plaintiffs allege that state Republican legislators intentionally passed the law to suppress the votes of minorities, young people and the poor. State attorneys deny the allegations.
In other testimony, Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that House Bill 589 imposes additional burdens on black and Hispanic voters. Blacks and Hispanic voters used such practices as early voting and same-day voter registration at higher levels than whites, he said.
Taking away or reducing those practices would have a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic voters, Burden testified. In addition, black and Hispanic voters are disproportionately poor and thus have fewer resources to overcome those burdens, he said.
Many of the provisions of the new law were in effect during the November 2014 general elections, and state attorneys have pointed to higher black voter turnout in that election as evidence that the new law isn’t discriminatory.
Burden testified, however, that the higher turnout in the November 2014 election was unique because it featured the U.S. Senate race between former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, and Thom Tillis, who at the time was the state House speaker in the N.C. General Assembly. Tillis won in what was one of the most high-profile races in the country. Burden said it was the most expensive race in the country, as well.
The intensity of the campaign helped boost turnout, Burden said. Another factor in higher black turnout were efforts by such groups as the N.C. NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus to educate black voters and get them to vote, Burden said. That effort would likely not be repeated in future elections, he said. He mentioned first-day testimony by the Rev. William Barber, the president of the N.C. NAACP, who said that the organization would not make such efforts in the future.
Tom Farr, one of the state’s attorneys, pointed out in cross-examination that Burden helped write an earlier national report, along with two colleagues, that concluded early voting had a negligible or possibly negative impact on voter turnout. Burden said that report had an expanded definition of early voting because states have vastly different kinds of early voting. And that definition, Burden said, included no-excuse absentee ballots by mail.
Farr also pointed out that the North Carolina law does not make any mention of race and that everyone has an equal opportunity to register to vote 25 days before an election or to vote during the shortened early voting period.
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