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In 2012, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan defeated Barack Obama and Joe Biden by 92,004 votes in North Carolina. That was a landslide compared to 2008, when Obama/Biden bested McCain/Palin by a mere 14,177 votes in the Tarheel State. Obviously, it doesn’t take much to change the balance of power there, and that’s why the Republicans, who control the state house, the governorship, and most electoral boards, have worked diligently to suppress Democratic turnout in early voting.

Democrats may be off their 2012 levels not due to disengagement, but due to the availability of in-person early voting. Local electoral boards, with Republican majorities, created bottlenecks by reducing the number of in-person early voting polling locations. They did so at the urging of the Republican state party chair. Not all local boards listened, but some did, and the effect is obvious. The volume of early voting is generally down in the counties that reduced the number of polling locations and is up where the number increased.

To see how effective they can be, let’s look at just one county.

Perhaps the most egregious county is Guilford, a county of 517,600 people, of which 57.9 percent is White, and gave Obama 58 percent of the vote in 2012. The county opened 16 in-person early voting locations in 2012, but has only their central election office open in 2016. The number of in-person voters on the first Thursday and Friday was 21,560 in 2012, but was only 3,305 in 2016, a decrease of 18,255 or 85 percent.

A quick back of the envelope calculation reveals that a Democrat carrying 57.9% of 18,255 votes would net 7,685. So, in one county, in only two days, the Republicans theoretically erased more than 50% of Obama/Biden’s 2008 margin of victory. Now, translate that to other counties all across the state and you begin to see how reducing the number of early voting locations can easily change the outcome of the election.

Mecklenburg, where the state’s largest city Charlotte is located and a county Obama won with 61 percent of the vote, decreased their number of polling locations from 22 to 10. The effect was not as pronounced as Guilford. The number of in-person voters on the first Thursday and Friday was 29,068 in 2012, and was 26,660 in 2016, a decrease of 2,426 or 8 percent.

This is happening despite North Carolina getting slapped in July by a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which found their voter suppression scheme was enacted in 2013 with “discriminatory intent” that “target[s] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The same court denied an appeal last week that accused North Carolina of not honoring the July ruling and requested more early voting time and locations.

Overall, the numbers out of North Carolina still look troubling for Donald Trump:

Republicans have been less engaged than 2012 during the entire mail balloting period, and this pattern persists through to in-person early voting. As of Saturday, Republicans are running behind their 2012 levels by 26,324 returned ballots for a 13 percent decrease from 2012. ..

…Clinton has a narrow lead in the North Carolina polling averages, and Democrats are still engaged at higher levels than Republicans. I imagine that the Clinton campaign is nervously watching these early voting numbers to see if voters in these heavily Democratic counties will engage once past the current bottleneck created by the shuttering polling locations at the beginning of the early voting period.

If the Democrats succeed in winning the presidency and Congress, they should make it a top priority to pass some kind of federal election overhaul that codifies what can and cannot be done to suppress voting. Yes, it’s obviously in their self-interest and of keen concern to constituencies whose franchise has been “targeted with surgical precision.” But it’s also the right thing to do and it would put an end to these shenanigans where legislatures and courts have as much to say about who wins federal elections as the actual voters.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at