Raleigh, N.C. — WRAL News used early voting locations for 2018 and 2014, as well as voter registration data, to gauge the potential impact of changes for the midterms. Among those changes is a 2018 law mandating that any early voting locations be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. A subsequent law restored the last Saturday before early voting.
Early, or so-called "one-stop," voting locations allow eligible citizens in the county to vote at any location, instead of voting at a specific precinct.
Republican lawmakers said the changes were important to ensure consistency within counties and cut down on voter confusion. But opponents of the measure said it reduces county flexibility and worried that it could cut voting opportunities for those that couldn't afford to keep sites open for 12 hours straight.
In practice, the number of hours available statewide to vote early at one-stop locations nearly doubled since 2014 – from 25,887 to 49,696. Total early voting hours increased in all but six counties: Henderson, Bladen, Stanly, Polk and McDowell and Halifax.
But the total number of early locations dropped by about 17 percent statewide from 2014, from 368 to 304. In all, 43 counties lost at least one voting location. Two counties – Henderson and Buncombe – lost four.
Yet a question remains: Did the change in early voting locations disproportionately impact any group of voters in particular?
We sought to answer the question using data on more than 7 million registered voters.
WRAL News used the following publicly available data from the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement:
- 2018 voter registration file as of Sept. 22, 2018
- Latitude/longitude coordinates for unique N.C. voter addresses. Coordinates in WGS 84 decimal degrees (EPSG:4326)
- 2018 early voting locations
- 2014 early voting locations
Latitude and longitude coordinates for 2018 early voting locations were obtained from the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement's lookup tool by using a Python script.
Coordinates were not available for 2014 through this tool, so the bulk of these locations were generated using the U.S. Census geocoder tool. Addresses that could not be matched were manually researched and recorded using Google's geocoder tool.
In 30 North Carolina counties, there were no changes in early voting locations between 2014 and 2018, so these counties were omitted from the analysis. This left 580 sites for the two midterm elections. Voters in these counties were also omitted from this analysis, leaving 6,433,969 active and inactive voters, both of which are eligible to cast ballots, according to state elections officials.
While some early voting locations may have been relocated due to the impact of hurricanes Florence or Michael, this analysis considered only the original early voting locations approved by local elections board and the state board.
Latitude and longitude coordinates were then matched to active and inactive registered voters on addresses, city, county and ZIP using MySQL database software. The query failed to match the addresses of 145,645 voters, a 97.7 percent match rate.
We used the free application programming interface (API) from the Open Route Service to generate isochrones – polygons for geographic information systems used to determine driving distances radiating outward from a point source. Isochrones were generated programatically using a Python script.
Open Route Service limits queries through its API to 10 shapefiles at a time. The service also limits total API queries to 2,500 a day.
Due to these limitations, the Python script runs queries for each site four times to produce a geojson feature collection with shapefiles at half-mile intervals from 0.5 to 20, with each polygon describing a driving distance range.
For example, a point that appears in the isochrone with a mile value of 5, but not in an isochrone with a mile value of 4.5, is within 4.5 and 5 miles from the early voting location.
Voter registration data, in CSV format, are loaded into the database, and a separate Python script was used to import the isochrone geojsons using ogr2ogr and its pygdaltools wrapper with a Python script.
SQL queries can then generate mile values for each isochrone intersecting each voter, by county. By deduplicating the table based on the voter and keeping the smallest value, we can find the closest site and distance for each voter in 2014 and 2018.
We then used database software to calculate the change in distance from the closest voting location in 2014 and the closest early voting location in 2018 for every active and inactive voter.
Because the driving distances were limited to 20 miles from each voting location, 62,325 voters could not be matched with either a 2014 or 2018 isochrone because they were outside the 20-mile range. This amounts to less than 1 percent of the registered voters in the study for which the difference in driving distance could not be calculated.
Using these values, we can calculate average, median, maximum and standard deviation values for each of the following subgroup types defined in the voter registration data:
- Political Party
We can also calculate average, median, maximum and standard deviation values for two types of county geographic designations:
- Federal Office of Management & Budget classifications of urban, suburban and rural counties
- North Carolina Department of Commerce 2018 county tier designations, which describe the county's level of economic distress from one to three, with three being the least distressed.