RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s voter photo identification law, enacted nearly five years ago by the Republican-controlled legislature but blocked by litigation, is just now getting implemented with local elections that wrap up next week.
Statewide and county officials say carrying out the photo ID requirement has gone well during three tranches of contests that began with mail-in absentee voting in mid-August, even though they’ve had few resources with which to communicate the changes to the public. A very low percentage of ballots cast has failed to count based on the rules.
The process is going well, said Mecklenburg County elections director Michael Dickerson, “much better than I expected.” Voters within North Carolina’s second-largest county are choosing leaders for Charlotte, the local school board and other municipalities.
Some voter education and civil rights advocates, however, remain concerned the new process is impeding voting.
“It’s crucial to understand that not all barriers to voting are immediately visible, especially for marginalized communities,” said Da’Quan Love, the state NAACP’s executive director. “And we will never know how many people will simply not vote because of the barrier to voting.” The state NAACP still has pending a federal lawsuit challenging the 2018 voter ID law as racially discriminatory, but the law can be enforced because an appeals court overturned a judge’s previous decision stopping its use in advance of a trial.
These low-turnout elections are a likely dress rehearsal for voter ID in 2024, when over 5 million people are expected to cast ballots in close races for president and governor next November in the ninth-largest state. Primaries also happen in March.
Close to 99,000 votes cast by mail or in person for primary or general elections on Sept. 12 and Oct. 10 were counted, while only 40 ballots weren’t due to a voter failing to meet the ID law’s requirements, according to State Board of Elections data. Several hundred thousand more ballots are being cast in general elections for about 465 cities, towns and villages that conclude Tuesday. Historically, turnout has been about 15% for these elections.
Under the law, a voter must present photo identification from one of nearly a dozen categories — from driver’s licenses and military IDs to approved IDs for university students and government workers. County election offices can produce free voter ID cards. Absentee voters mail a copy of a qualifying ID with their ballots. People unable to produce a photo ID in person can cast a provisional ballot. They must either fill out an exception form or return to their local election office with an ID for their vote to count.
Workers of You Can Vote, a nonprofit that helps register North Carolina voters and has educated 70,000 people on voting this year, have noticed voters mistakenly believing they must have an up-to-date driver’s license in order to vote, especially if they’ve just moved to the state. And the group is worried that voter mistakes with mail-in balloting are resulting in voting delays, a group official says.
“We’re thinking ahead to the (2024) general election and the primary election next year and just how many more mistakes there’ll be,” said Kate Fellman, who leads the organization.
The State Board of Elections received money in the state budget this fall to fund broad statewide education efforts next year, such as television ads and mailers.
Voters who only cast ballots in presidential year elections are going to need a different message about voter ID than municipal election voters, who “are often some of our most civically engaged individuals,” state board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said.
Kimberly Sherrill, 63, a retired university employee, described the process of using her ID to vote at a Durham early voting site this week as a little tedious. But she’s OK with voters having to present some kind of identification.
“This idea is fine. I have no problem with it,” Sherrill said.
Thirty-six states request or require identification to vote, of which at least 20 ask for a photo ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In North Carolina, Republicans pushed for voter ID for over a decade, saying it would discourage voter fraud and build confidence in elections. Critics say the threat of such fraud is extremely low and a voter ID mandate deters minority and low-income voters.
Bill MacMillan, 67, of Cary, who voted this fall, said not everyone is like him and has multiple qualifying IDs.
Voter ID “suppresses voting for a lot of people that have to live a kind of life that they don’t always have a photo ID and it makes it harder for them to vote,” MacMillan said. “And I think it’s anti-American.”
A 2013 voter ID law approved by the General Assembly was used by the state briefly in 2016 before federal judges struck it down. The 2018 law expanded the kind of qualifying IDs allowed, but it was also blocked by both federal and state judges until appeals courts reversed decisions that had declared the requirement was or appeared racially biased. The most recent ruling came in April, when a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court overturned a previous decision by the same court when it had a Democratic majority, opening the door for the voter ID requirement this fall.
The pending state NAACP lawsuit could go to trial next year, so it’s possible another ruling against the law could block its use for the fall 2024 elections.