Who Cares About Voting Rights?

June 21, 2021
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09:  Protesters gather during a rally held by the group Common Cause in front of the U.S. Supreme Court January 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Voting rights activists rallied to oppose voter roll purges as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute, a challenge to Ohio's voter roll purges. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Who cares about voting rights? Well, we do. But not everyone does, and therein lies a challenging juxtaposition for our republic.

As Gene Nichol eloquently put it in his recent editorial, North Carolina – no less than America as a whole – currently faces an organized radical-right movement increasingly opposed to multiracial representative democracy itself. We in the South know what that path looks like all too well. The stakes for rebuilding representative governance in our state are as high and as clear as they could be.

We at Carolina Forward have combed through our research to present another view on this question: what do the voters think? We have come away with some good news, as well as some bad.

The good news is that, when asked, most voters strongly agree with specific measures to strengthen voting rights. When stripped of partisan signaling to the extent possible, folks mostly agree on this stuff. But here comes the bad news: voting rights rank close to last on voters’ lists of top concerns.

Strengthening voting rights, including redistricting reform, is incredibly important for all of the obvious reasons of living in a functioning democracy. But most voters don’t really understand them in context and don’t directly connect this issue with their everyday lives. Very few people think about gerrymandering and voter suppression, which is largely why they’re so effective at suppressing the will of voters and allowing entrenched interests to take advantage of the system.

Looking At The Data

The data is clear: when asked about specific measures to safeguard voting access and election quality, North Carolina’s voters broadly agree with them.

For example, take the “For the People Act,” which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March and now sits in the Senate. The Act would represent the strongest advance for voting rights since the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, with multiple provisions that garner strong support: modernizing voter registration, mandating the availability of vote-by-mail and cracking down on partisan gerrymandering. (You can read a full annotation of the bill here.) Nationally, polling shows that a big majority of voters support the Act.

Here in North Carolina, support for “For the People” is narrower, but still commands net +6 approval:

The contours of this support are fairly obvious: the coalition in favor is urban/suburban and more multiracial, while opposition is very rural and white. This is a recurring pattern on nearly every voting rights issue.

Another example is automatic voter registration. Automatic voter registration (sometimes shortened to “AVR”) is a very modest, but important, component of voting rights reform. Essentially, it makes voter registration an opt-out system, instead of the existing opt-in. Anyone is free to un-register themselves, but by default, all eligible voters are automatically registered. A centralized, electronic system is not only easier to manage, but also can more easily and effectively ensure voter eligibility. For those concerned about election security, “AVR” should be very appealing. In fact, 19 states use it already (read more about how automatic voter registration works). AVR is also a slam-dunk with voters, winning net +16 approval:

Yet here, too, we see a massive gulf in support. While Democrats and Independents are in favor, Republicans line up strongly against. There is nearly a 40-point gap between white and Black support. Once again, urban and suburban voters are strongly in favor, while rural residents oppose it.

And then, of course, there’s gerrymandering. The Republican gerrymander of our state, which has distorted North Carolina politics for a decade now, is both highly effective and deeply unpopular. Poll after poll, including polling exclusively of Republican-Trump voters by Republican pollsters, shows that voters want independent redistricting reform. They’re simply tired of the constant litigation about politicians choosing their own voters. Voters strongly dislike gerrymandering:

But here’s a big takeaway from this result: a ton of voters simply have no idea what “gerrymandering” even is. After a solid decade or more of activism around this issue, this should be a concerning result for advocates of redistricting reform.

While we see that urban and suburban voters feel more strongly about ending gerrymandering, a clear majority of rural voters agree with them. Given that Republican gerrymandering dramatically exaggerates rural areas’ political power over that of urban/suburban ones, this could reflect a rational calculus by some rural voters who simply like it that way. Other voters may simply be unaware of this political effect of gerrymandering. Given the hard right’s constant media diet of victimhood and fearmongering about urban areas, many voters likely see gerrymandering as a form of “protection” from being out-voted.

The central challenge for leaders who support democracy is both how to communicate the value of democracy to voters, and how to connect it to the everyday issues they think about: their jobs and the economy, educating their kids, affording healthcare and building a brighter future. This calls for new courage, confidence and strategy by progressive leaders for a better state. We hope they stand up.

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