One might shrug off the sweeping voting restrictions approved last week in North Carolina as typical of a Southern state under Republican control. But look again: Unlike many of its neighbors, the Tar Heel State had been well down the path of progressivism for several years before the GOP shut it down during this years legislative session.
Indeed, North Carolina had broken away from its regional neighbors by expanding access to the polls, which helped increase minority-voter turnout. A strong and steady flow of newcomers to the state brought more open-minded political views to bear on local elections. The state even recorded one of the nations biggest populations of gay couples, with a whopping 118 percent gain reported in the 2010 census.
Some of the changes were occurring elsewhere in the South, but not to the degree of shifting the voting patterns of an entire state. In North Carolina, however, the lurch toward progressive politics has ended as quickly as it started, demonstrated by the state legislatures passage of a conservative wish list that includes a draconian voter-ID requirement and the elimination or reduction of measures such as early voting.
How did it happen? Here are five key factors that triggered the GOP backlash:
1. A state of change: A state made up mostly of native-born whites and blacks, and with a shrinking population, became a hot destination for people of all kinds, from outside the South and even the United States. Many of them brought more-moderate opinions to North Carolinas right-of-center politics.
From 2000 to 2010, North Carolina had the fifth-highest population growth of any state, adding 1.5 million people. Along the way, the share of minorities rose by 5 percentage points to 35 percent. The Hispanic population soared by 111 percent, or more than 420,000, to 800,120.
Family dynamics changed, too, which helped nudge the political needle to the left. Unmarried couples living together increased by 55 percent to more than 222,000. The state recorded one of the biggest increases in the number of gay couples. Homeowners living alone topped 1 million, up from 8.6 percent to 27 percent of all homeowners. And those who have never been married grew to nearly a third of the population.
2. Early voting: The South has traditionally resisted efforts to expand access to the polls, but North Carolina in 2007 became the first Southern state to enact early voting. In 2008 a surprising 55 percent of all ballots were cast at early-voting sites, with black women making up the largest share of early voters. In 2012, 56 percent of all voters voted early.
The reason Republicans scaled back early voting: It provided the decisive victory margins for Obama and the Democratic candidates for governor and Senate in 2008. Early voting also paved the way for other measures, such as same-day registration and Sunday voting, that have helped increase minority turnout, often in favor of Democratic candidates.
3. The Obama effect: It wasnt just that Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1976. Its that his candidacy spurred a convergence of ongoing demographic changes to shift partisan and gender politics. Blacks (a record 72 percent) for the first time voted at a higher rate than whites (69 percent). Women also had a higher turnout rate than men. Voters elected the states first female governor, Democrat Beverly Perdue, and a record 44 women to the state legislature. Another successful campaign was Kay Hagans, who defeated incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole to break the Republicans 35-year grip on a seat previously held by segregationist Jesse Helms.
4. The Tea Party wave: The 2010 midterm elections were an anti-government conservative reaction to 2008, giving Republicans control not only of the U.S. House of Representatives but also of a majority of state legislatures, including North Carolinas. Republican voters in the state turned out at 51 percent, Democrats dropped to 45 percent and independents voted at 33 percent.
Republicans took control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in more than a century. GOP lawmakers then began to aggressively combat Perdues agenda, causing her popularity to rapidly decline.
5. Blacks outvoted whites again: A reinvigorated GOP narrowly prevented Obama from winning the state again, largely because of momentum created by former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrorys gubernatorial victory. McCrory became the states first Republican governor elected in two decades. Yet strong minority turnout, particularly through expanded measures for voting, gave Republicans cause for concern. The Obama campaign machine again helped blacks outperform whites at the polls.
The number of registered Latinos, who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, increased by roughly 40 percent. More than half of all voters, including 70 percent of blacks, again used early balloting. Same-day registration added 97,000 to the rolls and allowed another 150,000 to stay eligible. And some 61,000 voted on the Sunday before Election Day, especially through the Souls to the Polls program run by black churches.
Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations.
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