NC Senate bill 666 takes aim at college students, early voters

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Three Republican senators challenged North Carolina’s voting procedures last week with two pieces of legislation targeting college students, one-stop voting registration sites and early voting periods. The bills, titled “Election Law Changes” and “Equalize Voter Rights,” both passed their first reading in the North Carolina Senate.

If passed, the bills will redefine how and when certain constituencies may vote. One part of the “Election Law Changes” bill threatens to eliminate dependency tax reductions for North Carolina parents if their child lists their college address, rather than their home address, on their voter registration form. Dependency tax reductions may save parents as much as $2,500 each year per qualifying child.

The “Equalize Voter Rights” bill provides additional incentive for college students to register at their home address. The legislation requires voters to register their vehicles at the address where they are registered to vote. If students register their vehicles at their college addresses, then they would have to pay local property taxes.

The sponsors of the bills, Senators Bill Cook, Norman Sanderson and Ronald Rabin, could not be reached for comment on the reasons supporting these changes to the state’s election laws. Some speculate the bills are an attempt to shift the district breakdown of election results in Republicans’ favor.

“Gerrymandering is very important to the Republican party at this time,” said Jason Husser, assistant director of the Elon Poll at Elon University. “There is the perception that college students vote democratic more often, but on the other hand, they also tend to vote like their parents. Gerrymanderers who have students that vote like their parents may want them to vote in the same place so as to not cause instability in their districts. This bill definitely enforces district lines.”

The proposed legislation does not strictly prevent students from registering to vote at their college address — a constitutional right determined by the 1979 Supreme Court case Symm vs. U.S. — but it may indirectly force some students to file absentee ballots or travel home to cast their votes. Jeffrey Pugh, a religious studies professor at Elon, said the bills send a clear message to all college students in the state.

“This shows the legislature fears college students, who overwhelmingly tend to vote democratic,” Pugh said. “Many share little of the social agenda of the members of our state legislature. They’re doing anything they can do to make it more difficult for students to vote. A governing body that rules on the basis of fear and not on the strength of its ideas doesn’t deserve to hold power.”

The bills also eliminate one-stop voting registration sites and shorten the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. A press release issued by the offices of Rabin, Cook and Sanderson said compressing the early voting period has financial benefits.

“In these tough economic times, we need to be proactive in finding ways to save money,” the release said. “One day of early voting in North Carolina costs $98,000. Our counties bear this cost exclusively. Cutting back early voting from seventeen to ten days does this by saving roughly $686,000 per election. This money would be better used to hire teachers and first responders.”

According to Husser, there may be other motivations behind the change. He pointed to data that showed many early voters supported democratic candidates in the November 2012 election, providing incentive for Republicans to shorten the early voting period.

“Early voters disproportionally voted for Obama and Walter Dalton,” he said. “There was a real gap between early voters and regular voters.”

Pugh said these aspects of the bills are part of a larger agenda to ensure Republicans retain power in the state.

“When you look at all the data you have, and you shorten early voting, that means you’re making it harder for working people to vote,” he said. “Why would a legislature want to find ways to prevent people from exercising their rights?  For the first time in my memory, not just conservatives, but extremist conservatives, have gained absolute and total political power. How the state of North Carolina responds to this will tell us a lot about how the state’s politics will play out in the next decade.”

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