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Why black voter turnout is down in North Carolina

Blame voter suppression (and a hurricane).

Voters cast their ballots at Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in Greensboro, NC, on Tuesday, November 4, 2014. (Photo by Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Voters cast their ballots at Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in Greensboro, NC, on Tuesday, November 4, 2014.
Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

In North Carolina, the presidential, gubernatorial, and US Senate races are all pretty close — so close that any change in voter turnout could make the difference. And Democrats have received some alarming news: Black voter turnout, which President Barack Obama relied on to narrowly win the state in 2008, is down.

What’s going on? A lot of news reports have pointed to North Carolina Republicans’ voting restrictions — including a strict voter ID requirement and early voting cuts — as the culprit. But the law enforcing those measures was struck down, putting most of the law on hold for the 2016 election.

Instead, it seems like there are two other issues at play. One factor is Hurricane Matthew, which flooded large parts of North Carolina this year. The second is other voter suppression efforts, particularly polling place closures approved by Republican-controlled election boards in several predominantly black counties.

North Carolina–based blog InsightUs took a look at the trends, breaking down how voting among black Americans compares in counties hit by poll closures, Hurricane Matthew, and neither. The analysis concluded that poll closures seemed to have the biggest role, although Hurricane Matthew was a big factor as well:

In the 58 counties that have been plagued by neither flooding nor locked polling place doors (Unimpaired Counties) African Americans are voting at 91% of their 2012 rate – not great, but a definite improvement over the statewide rate of just 82%. By contrast, among the 32 counties for which federal disaster declarations are in effect, that rate drops substantially to just 79%. But the man-made disaster of voter suppression proves to be the most potent force of all, depressing the African American voting rate to a mere 72% of 2012’s performance. Interestingly, flooding and voter suppression aren’t additive: among the 7 counties doubly cursed by both, voting action is again 72%. Actually, that makes sense: if there’s no open polling place within a reasonable distance, it hardly matters whether or not a voter is surrounded by water.

The analysis may be a little outdated since it’s from October 31. Since then, there was a surge in black voters during the last week of early voting, although not quite enough to make up for the deficit in black voter turnout compared to 2012.

Still, the numbers suggest that Republican efforts to keep black people from voting are working. To be clear, there’s really no doubt that’s what Republicans are doing — they have admitted as much in court, acknowledged this to the media, and bragged about declining black voter turnout in a press release.

The good news for Democrats is Latino turnout in North Carolina is surging. Part of that is thanks to enthusiasm to vote against Donald Trump, who’s repeatedly insulted Latinos on the campaign trail. But Latinos also often live in other parts of the state than their black counterparts, so they may not have experienced the same kind of polling place closures that hit predominantly black counties.

It’s unclear if the Latino voter surge will be enough to make up for the drop in black voters. But if it’s not, and Democrats lose in North Carolina, they’re going to be able to point to voter suppression tactics as one culprit.

Watch: Americans with disabilities often struggle to vote

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