Raleigh, N.C. — When the North Carolina State Board of Elections puts its official stamp of approval on the March 15 primary results next week, the experiences of the more than 2,000 voters who came to the polls without photo identification will loom large in their deliberations.
The March primary was the first election in North Carolina's history in which all voters who cast ballots in person were asked to show an ID. More than 99 percent of voters showed ID or voted by mail, but the fraction that claimed an exemption – a "reasonable impediment" in elections jargon – gave elections officials a snapshot into the difficulties posed by the new law:
- "She lives in a home and is 90 years old. Unaware of new law. No way to get to DMV."
- "Domestic violence situation. Did not want person to find her new address."
- "NC ID card has deteriorated and broken, cannot read expiration date on ID card."
- "Not yet received NC ID"
- "House fire."
"Photo ID went off well. We didn't have a lot of complaints about it. We had no indication that anyone was turned away because of it," said Kim Strach, director of the State Board of Elections.
Critics of the law would dispute that notion. Documents filed in a lawsuit hoping to weaken the state's voter ID requirement detail several instances of problems at the polls. Still, voter ID issues represented a fraction of voters and even a relatively small subset of those who had some sort of problem at the polls.
The question for voting rights advocates is whether a relatively successful test run this spring will translate into an equally smooth general election, when voter turnout will be at its apex."I don't think the primary election is a good test of how well or how not well the voter ID law works," said Bob Phillips, state director for Common Cause, a good-government group that is among those suing in federal court to top North Carolina's voter ID law.
Come November, Phillips said, "there will be a whole lot more voters and a lot more younger voters."
High school and college students and other young voters make up many of those who filled out reasonable impediment forms, the paperwork voters filled out to explain why they didn't have an acceptable photo ID. Clusters of those forms were filed in voting precincts on or near college campuses, including Duke University and North Carolina State University. Other reasonable impediment forms noted that a potential voter had only a high school ID.
On the other end of the age spectrum are voters like Alberta Currie, who, despite having voted for decades, encountered problems this year because she does not have a photo ID, according to court documents. She is the lead plaintiff in a state lawsuit challenging the new identification rules, one of a complex tangle of court cases across North Carolina and across the country on the topic.
Critics say that the nation's youngest and oldest voters, along with minorities, are less likely to have the photo IDs required by laws like North Carolina's. They also point out that those voters are more likely to back Democrats, while voter ID laws are generally put in place by Republican legislators.
Backers of the measures say the laws will ensure voters have confidence in the outcome of close, hard-fought elections.
"I've generally maintained it's important in close elections," said North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. "The confidence people have in the results of the elections is extremely important. You only get to the point when there's a real question when they're very close contests."
Lawsuits keep officials guessing
The North Carolina General Assembly passed a sweeping election reform law in 2013, creating a new voter ID requirement that went into effect this year. Initially, that law would have provided no exceptions for those who didn't have a photo ID to show at the polls.
But as ID laws in Texas and other states faced challenges, North Carolina lawmakers added a reasonable impediment exception last summer. Lawmakers called it a "safety valve" that would let people vote who couldn't get a ride to a Division of Motor Vehicles office, find their birth certificate or otherwise couldn't obtain a photo ID.
Voting rights advocates also speculate that it turned out to be a legal safety valve for the new voting law. A federal court upheld the voter ID requirement and other changes in an April ruling. The case is now on appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The new exemption also stalled a state lawsuit that had been headed to trial in the summer of 2015. That lawsuit focuses on the voter ID provision.
Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan held a hearing this month to sort through a series of motions in that case, including whether his court even has the authority to hear the case and, if so, when it should be scheduled for trial.
At the same time, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments this week on Texas' stricter voter ID rules, setting up a web of judicial proceedings that could determine what voters in North Carolina and across the nation need to do in order to be sure they can vote. In the Texas case, the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly said it would step in if the 5th Circuit has not reached a decision by July 20.
All of that leaves elections officials eyeing a potential last-minute scramble if one court or the other changes the rules for the November election through an unexpected ruling. For the time being, backers of the voter ID requirements say data from the March primary is evidence that North Carolina's reasonable impediment safety valve work and most voters are able to comply with voter ID rules.
"I think it validates what we've said all along, that the complaints about people not having IDs were overblown," said Berger, R-Rockingham.
Initial studies that tried to match the state's voter rolls against North Carolina driver's license data estimated that hundreds of thousands of voters could be without an ID. State officials have long maintained those numbers were inflated by difficulties in matching people whose names had slight variations – such as people who changed their name after getting married – and those who moved without notifying the state.
The data on provisional ballots seems to bolster that notion. Provisional ballots are given to voters when they encounter some sort of administrative problem at the polls. The forms allows a voter's ballot to be counted if they are found to be eligible.
Of the more than 40,000 voters who cast provisional ballots this spring, 14,502 appeared not to have registered in advance of the primary. Another 7,189 tried to vote in one party's primary despite being registered in another political party. Anecdotally, elections officials chalked this up to Democrats who wanted to weigh in for or against Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary or Republicans who wanted a say between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential nominating contest.
Other run-of-the-mill voting issues, such as voters who came to the wrong precinct or didn't report having moved to their county board of elections, made up 12,831 ballots.
Only 2,371 voters showed up to the polls without an ID. That's a fraction of 1 percent of the the 2.3 million people who cast ballots during the primary. While Strach said she would have preferred everyone brought IDs after a two-year, statewide voter education campaign, she said the relatively small number of voters without ID is a reason for optimism.
Of those 2,371 voters who didn't show ID, less than half – 1,048 – claimed a reasonable impediment. Ultimately, 765 reasonable impediment ballots were at least partially counted, according to data posted by the State Board of Elections.
The question the State Board of Elections and voting rights advocates will be sorting out next week is what happened to those more than 200 voters who claimed a reasonable impediment but didn't have their vote count.
Not all problems were avoided
Critics of voter ID say that the new requirements may just prompt some people to stay home rather than navigate the reasonable impediment rules.
"I have no reason to believe that did, because turnout was relatively high," Strach said.
Normally, the State Board of Elections would have held its official canvass meeting to make the March 15 primary results official within a week or two following the primary. However, Strach and her office used the primary election to conduct a close audit of how provisional ballots, particularly those cast due to a reasonable impediment, were handled by North Carolina's 100 county boards of elections.
The goal, she said, is to make sure voters are treated the same way no matter where they cast a ballot in the state.
"When November comes, we won't have this luxury. We won't be able to take several weeks because people need to take office," Strach said. "It's important for counties to understand that these audits were taking place, there are (problems) identified for you this time, make sure you get it right next time."
One of the biggest problems identified by the state board was in Durham, where provisional ballots were mishandled. That issue had little to do with photo ID and is instead chalked up to poll worker error.
Strach said that long lines, including end-of-day queues that delayed the closing of some precincts in Durham and Mecklenburg counties by hours, will be a major emphasis for November's elections.
But in state court this month, civil rights attorney Anita Earls argued that the experiences of voters during the March 15 primary showed that voter ID still needs rethinking.
"There were a number of ways the system broke down," Earls told the court.
For example, Currie, the state case's lead plaintiff who is an elderly, black woman living in Fayetteville, was not offered a reasonable impediment declaration when she first tried to vote.
"Ms. Currie was simply told by a poll worker that she could not vote because she did not have acceptable photo identification," an amended complainant in the case recounts. "Ms. Currie was only able to vote after leaving the polling place on Election Day and after obtaining assistance from a legal intern who drove from Durham to Fayetteville to assist Ms. Currie with the voting process."
Other cases cited in the suit included an Orange County woman who was allowed to vote by showing an out-of-state license, despite rules that indicated she should have been sent through a reasonable impediment process. That shows "that the photo ID requirement for voting is not being implemented uniformly or fairly." The plaintiffs also cited three other cases in Orange and Robeson counties they said showed voter ID standards are being applied unevenly.
Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, said Tuesday that the board tries to ensure that each of the roughly 20,000 poll workers across the state follows the correct procedure.
"Our guidance is clearly aimed at making these instances fewer and fewer," Lawson said. "Overall, we think this has been a successful initial run."