How North Carolina Suppresses African-American Voter Turnout

By requiring that local school board elections be held to coincide with federal elections, North Carolina can boost voter turnout and make the boards more reflective of local communities.

Although recent voting laws limiting absentee voting and requiring voter identification have been criticized for their disenfranchising effects, these efforts are not new. In the South, there is a strong legacy of laws enacted to disenfranchise African Americans. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, local elections were no longer held on the same day as federal elections to prevent federal officials from halting discrimination and violence at the polls. African American voting rates plummeted and poll violence increased after federal efforts to protect voters ended in 1891. Such election scheduling continues in many North Carolina communities, depressing voter turnout among all demographic groups, but particularly among minority and low-income voters. 

Wake County saw the profound effects of election timing and low turnout in 2009 when four new members of the Wake County Board of Education caused a stir by changing the local school assignment policy. Wake County had assigned students to schools so that no one school had more than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, creating racially and socio-economically diverse schools and boosting performance across the district, especially for minority and low-income students. In 2010, the new assignment policy, which assigned students to neighborhood schools and effectively re-segregated the district, became a topic of national debate. 

Before the policy was implemented, 94.5 percent of Wake County parents were satisfied or very satisfied with their children’s school and only 29 percent of residents of Wake County viewed the Board of Education favorably. Despite criticism by the media, policy experts, and voters, the board enacted the policy. This rejection of voters’ desires was possible because only 11 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the October 2009 election that brought these members onto the board. The 2011 elections had an increased turnout of 21 percent–enough to establish a Democratic majority on the board, but unable to reverse the policy.

Analysis

North Carolina law stipulates that members of local boards of education be elected every two years on a staggered basis and serve a four-year term. In Wake County, elections for the Board of Education, which are overseen by a county board, are held in October of odd-numbered years and have consistently low turnout, which reflects North Carolina’s legacy of voter disenfranchisement. These school board elections must change to democratize the board, create community control of the schools, and prevent voter disenfranchisement. 

Elections for members of the local boards of education should be held so that they coincide with national elections. In Wake County, turnout for these national elections is much higher than turnout for October school board elections: 48 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2010 midterm elections, and 75 percent of voters voted in the 2008 presidential and congressional elections. By contrast, 11 percent of registered voters voted in the 2009 Board of Education elections.

Next Steps 

Biennial elections are established under North Carolina law, but the management of those elections is left to the county boards of election. The Board of Elections will also need to develop a plan for extending or shortening the terms of current board members so that upcoming elections are held in even years. While this change is particularly important for the Wake County Board of Education, where gulfs between the views of board members and the public have been especially pronounced, other North Carolina counties should also hold local elections to coincide with national elections.