Bryan McGowan spent twenty-two years in the US Marine Corps, including four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. When he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 2005 until 2010, McGowan used same-day registration to register and vote during the state’s early-voting period.
He relocated to Georgia in 2010 because of his military service and returned to North Carolina in 2014. On the first day of early voting this year, McGowan arrived at his new polling place to update his registration and vote, just as he’d done in the 2008 presidential election. But this time he was turned away. North Carolina had eliminated same-day registration as part of the sweeping voting restrictions enacted by the Republican legislature in the summer of 2013. “All I want to do is cast my vote,” the disabled veteran said. After fighting for his country abroad, McGowan said, he felt betrayed by not being able to vote when he returned home.
Sadly, McGowan’s story was not atypical this election year. Voters in fourteen states faced new voting restrictions at the polls in 2014—the first election in nearly fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The number of voters affected by the new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for the Senate or for governor in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In the North Carolina Senate race, Republican Thom Tillis, who as speaker of the General Assembly oversaw the state’s new voting law, defeated Democrat Kay Hagan by about 47,000 votes. Nearly five times as many voters in 2010 used the voting reforms eliminated by the North Carolina GOP—200,000 voted during the now-eliminated first week of early voting, 21,000 used same-day registration, and 6,000 cast out-of-precinct ballots.
Lawyer Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham flagged dozens of stories of disenfranchised voters and election problems in North Carolina. Voters were not able to register during the early-voting period. There were longer lines during early voting because the state had cut it by a week. And there were longer lines on election day because of the shorter early-voting period, particularly in heavily Democratic urban areas like Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro, where wait times stretched to over two hours at some polling places.
Leslie Culbertson arrived at her polling place in Charlotte’s Eastover Elementary School expecting to quickly cast her ballot. “The last time I voted here the line was nothing,” she said. But this time, the wait was an hour, and Culbertson had to leave the polls without voting to pick up her children from school.
Many voters also arrived at the wrong polling location, where they could no longer cast a regular ballot out-of-precinct. At the Chavis Community Center in Raleigh, in a predominantly African-American, low-income part of town, there were 216 voters in line waiting to cast a provisional ballot as of 3:30 pm on election day. The ballots they cast will most likely not be counted. “We were getting tons and tons of calls from voters who were turned away because they were at the wrong precinct,” Riggs said.