A voting rights showdown in North Carolina?

North Carolina, a battleground state that's sure to be one again, is putting in place a new package of measures for voter ID requirements and - importantly - changing its early voting periods, among other measures, steps that many believe have it headed for a voting rights lawsuit.

Supporters of the new law say they're looking to reduce what they see as potential for fraud in the system; opponents see politics at play, with party-line divisions.

In either case here's why there's so much as stake for Tarheel State voters:

In 2012 most North Carolina votes - 61 percent - were cast early, before Election Day. Registered Democrats cast a lot more of them (443,000) than registered Republicans. In percentage terms, Democrats cast 47 percent of the early votes and Republicans cast 32 percent. (The rest, 21 percent, were independents.)

None of that is accidental: it's well-known that Democrats and the Obama campaign made it a point to encourage early voting, helped by their much-discussed data and targeting efforts, both in North Carolina and elsewhere. It makes things easier for less-habitual or newer voters (who may be unfamiliar with process, have less-flexible work schedules, and younger) and allows the campaign to spread out their Get-Out-The-Vote operations across weeks instead of one day.

Romney won the state, of course, though many credit Democratic campaign organization and early voting for helping make it competitive.

Here's another reason the early time period matters: almost all the early votes (92 percent) were cast in-person at a location, not mailed in. The days and hours of early voting could vary and we'll have to see what impact that has.

Board of Elections counts show in total numbers, most early voters in North Carolina were white (1.8 million to 737,000 African-American) just as most of the state's voters were white, overall.

Most whites and most blacks used early voting. But African-Americans who did vote were somewhat more likely to use it (three-fourths did) than whites (two-thirds), based on the exit poll estimates.

But campaigns aren't the only drivers of the rise in early voting.

Every state that has made it easier to cast ballots by mail or extended the early voting season, voters have taken advantage. That's why nationwide almost four in 10 ballots were cast early in 2012.

  • Anthony Salvanto On Twitter»

    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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