How North Carolina Became the Model for Democrats’ Nationwide Push to Expand Voting Access

A couple fills out ballots together at the O.P. Owens Building on November 3, 2020 in Lumberton, North Carolina. After a record-breaking turnout during the 2020 election, Democrats and Republicans are at odds over Democrats plans to expand voting access through the 'For the People Act.' (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

April 2, 2021

Since Election Day, Republicans have filed hundreds of bills aimed at restricting voting access. But the federal ‘For The People Act’ would introduce sweeping, NC-like voting reforms nationwide. 

While several state legislatures have recently passed voter suppression bills, the US House this month passed the polar opposite, a bill that would make voting easier and more accessible. The bill, known as the For the People Act, would, among other things, expand early voting periods, make the voter registration process easier and limit restrictions on voting by mail. 

In other words, the US House bill would make the rest of the country more like North Carolina.

The 2020 election in North Carolina, despite the pandemic, was about as free and accessible as anywhere in the county, voting advocates say, offering clear proof that voter protections are good for everyone.

“We in NC have seen it first hand: When you make voting easier and more accessible you tend to see a higher participation rate,” said Bob Phillips, the executive director of the nonpartisan voting rights group Common Cause NC. 

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Like most states, North Carolina saw record voter turnout in 2020. And the state’s moves to adjust to voting amid the coronavirus played a large role. 

It is these kinds of provisions that the For the People Act seeks to make standard across the country.

“[The bill] is definitely a once in a generation pro-democracy package,” said Joselle Torres, Communications Manager for Democracy NC. 

“The biggest thing,” Torres said, “is it’s going to make voting simpler, safer and fairer across all states.”

But extended early voting and no-excuse vote by mail, Republicans say, are an invitation to widespread voter fraud. Some Republicans say it’s a power grab by Democrats. Restrictions on access are needed to save democracy, they say, and GOP legislators in 47 states have introduced more than 360 bills restricting voting access to some degree since Election Day, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. 

Even a quick look at the data in NC, however, shows instead that the state’s easy access provisions helped drive a record turnout among Republicans in 2020, helping the party accrue large victories in NC. There were also no significant cases of fraud.

Donald Trump lost the national election to Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes. Trump won North Carolina by more than 74,000 votes. NC also re-elected Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, despite Democratic hopes of winning a vulnerable seat, and Republicans gained seats in the NC General Assembly. 

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In widely conservative Beaufort County, for example, Trump won by 26 percentage points and Tillis beat Democrat Cal Cunningham by 23 percentage points. And though Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper may have beat his Republican challenger Dan Forest by a huge margin statewide, in Beaufort, Forest won by 20 percentage points.

More than three times as many people in the county voted in the extended early voting period there than voted on Election Day (17,515, early; 5,792, Election Day). More than 3,000 people in Beaufort voted by mail. 

In McDowell County, where Trump won by 48 percentage points, 14,589 people voted early, 2,700 voted by mail and 5,763 on Election Day. 

While Republican leaders may not like the House voting rights bill, polls show that a majority of GOP voters support it. 

“It seems counterintuitive that there was a problem with the voting process if you got the results that you want,” said state Rep. Robert Reives, the House Democratic leader.  “This shows to me that it works and you really shouldn’t mess with it. “

The data is clear: While free access to the polls increases voting, it does not induce fraud. 

As WRAL and The News and Observer reported last week, federal prosecutors recently ended a four-year investigation into voter fraud in NC. The inquiry, which had warned of systemic and widespread fraud in 2016 and used those warnings to keep its investigation secret, found that among 4.8 million votes cast in the state that year, just 40 were fraudulent. 

Widespread voter fraud just isn’t a thing. 

Republican efforts to restrict the vote have garnered widespread criticism, where in Georgia, even major employers in the state such as Delta and Coca-Cola, which are based in Atlanta, have said the bill violates voter rights.  

The Georgia bill is also facing several lawsuits claiming that most of the provisions will have a disproportionate effect on voters of color and violate 14th Amendment protections.

The ultimate judges of the bills, however, may be the voters. 

“There’s not one elected official in this country that can do anything without the support of his or her voters,” Reives said.

There have been several discussions among Republican lawmakers in NC about what, if any, voting laws the assembly may push forward. Some bill proposals would limit the time that absentee ballots can be accepted to no later than Election Day. Other provisions would affirm that only the Republican-controlled General Assembly has the power to change election laws. 

While Democrats have expressed concerns about the timeline for absentee ballots, there have not yet been any efforts in the state matching the scope of Georgia’s.

The voters who would be most affected by restrictions in early voting and voting by mail are not charlatans and fraudsters intent on stuffing ballots and voting under fake names. Instead, voting advocates say, it will be the voter who works two jobs in rural North Carolina who can’t take off on Election Day. It will be someone who has recently moved to the state and won’t have the proper ID. It’s someone with a disability who can’t get to the limited polling sites in a small voting window. 

“When you’re looking at a county that might be more rural,” Torres said, “and they are under resourced and they don’t have as many polling locations, that’s when something like voting by mail can really come in handy and makes sure those communities that are being targeting by these voter suppression bills still have access to the ballot.”

There can be no going back.

Early voting, Phillips said, was so popular it overshadowed voting on Election Day.

“We seem to not have a lot of lulls in early voting” Phillips said, “and it provides all kind of options for voters which is what allows us to avoid what we see in early states that have these massive lines on Election Day.”

Having early voting on Sundays, too, which some Republican officials say is sacrilegious, is widely used by Republcian voters, Phillips said. 

“There’s an irony in that these great voting laws that worked in 2020, they benefited everybody, and yet so many of these provisions that we have in the law were things that the current majority party less than a decade ago tried to repeal,” he said.

“Before we had same-day and no-excuse absentee voting and extended hours, we ranked in the bottom for voter participation,” he said. “Since 2008 we are in the top 10.”


Here are some of the key provisions of the For the People Act, which passed the US House in March and is now in the Senate’s court.

  • Requires each state to offer online voter registration. (North Carolina already does so.)
  • Makes voter registration automatic at 18. (North Carolina does not do automatic registration, but it does make it easier by allowing residents to register to vote at the same time they get or renew their driver’s license.)
  • Requires states to count properly completed provisional ballots filled out at the wrong polling place. (NC already does this.)
  • Requires states to allow voters to present sworn affidavits in place of voter ID. (While NC has passed a voter ID requirement, the law is blocked during a judicial review)
  • Requires that states provide at least 15 consecutive days of early voting in federal elections, that locations are accessible and in rural areas, and that they are open for at least 10 hours a day. (NC extended its early voting period to 17 days during the pandemic.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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