Early Voting Changes and Voter Turnout: North Carolina in the 2016 General Election

Hannah L. Walker, Michael C. Herron, Daniel A. Smith


In 2013, the United States Supreme Court handed down Shelby County v. Holder. The landmark voting rights decision removed jurisdictions covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act from preemptive federal review. Immediately after the decision, North Carolina passed the Voter Information and Verification Act. Among other restrictions, the legislation created strict voter ID requirements, eliminated same-day voter registration, and reduced early in person (EIP) voting.

Activists challenged the law, and in the summer of 2016 a federal district court struck it down for its racially disparate impact. In the wake of the court’s decision, though, North Carolina’s County Boards of Elections responded by making various changes to EIP voting. Some counties expanded, while others contracted, the number of days, hours, and locations voters could cast ballots prior to Election Day.

In our paper, “Early Voting Changes and Voter Turnout: North Carolina in the 2016 General Election,” we examine whether changes to EIP voting affected turnout in the Tar Heel State. More importantly, we are interested if the changes impacted race and party subgroups differentially. Leveraging the natural experiment of non-uniform changes across the state’s 100 counties, we assess the impact of the changes on turnout among Black and white voters.

Existing scholarship on the topic is mixed. Reducing barriers to voting is historically associated with increased turnout, especially among marginalized voters. Yet, measures that increase the convenience of voting might simply allow habitual voters to substitute traditional Election Day voting for a more convenient method. Some scholarship goes so far as to suggest that voting early may dampen turnout because it reduces the civic significance of Election Day mobilization efforts.

Empirical strategies to isolate the impact of EIP opportunities, however, often suffer from ecological inference problems when drawing on aggregate-level data, or social desirability and sampling biases when drawing on survey data. The use of administrative voter files improves upon the former strategies, but the specter of omitted variable bias haunts this approach.

To avoid these pitfalls, we leverage the uneven changes to EIP voting made across North Carolina’s counties. Drawing on administrative voting records, we compare turnout of registered voters residing in precincts on either side of a given county border. Rather than compare individual turnout in counties increasing EIP voting to counties decreasing or not changing EIP voting, we restrict our comparisons to border dwellers. Our logic is that voters living near one another (albeit in adjoining counties) are more comparable than they are to a randomly selected voter from elsewhere in the state. We assess the validity of this assumption using census data and find that it holds reasonably well.

Conditional on race and party, we then assess the impact of changes to EIP offerings with proportional differences in voting behavior from 2012 to 2016. We compare the turnout of Black democrats to other Black democrats, white democrats to white democrats, and so forth. We do this for changes to five aspects of EIP voting: overall hours offered, evening hours, Saturday hours, Sunday hours, and number of polling locations available. Our findings are mixed. In some instances, we find that the expansion of hours is statistically associated with increased turnout. In others, we find that EIP expansion is either negatively or not all associated with turnout. In short, we find that the impact is context specific. We find no evidence that the expansion of early in-person voting had no impact on turnout, much less that it demobilized voters.

The institutional variation of EIP voting across North Carolina’s 100 counties in the 2016 election offers an opportunity to evaluate the impact of changes made to this popular form of convenience voting. We are hesitant, though, to draw broad conclusions from our analysis. To the extent that turnout among racial and party subgroups changed in 2016, we find little evidence that changes to EIP voting opportunities were a decisive causal factor, neither expanding nor suppressing the vote. Why and how voters may overcome challenges to voting presented by changes to EIP offerings remains an important point of inquiry for future research. We hope our unique research design may help other scholars interested in trying to isolate the effects of institutional change on voting behavior.


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