Q&A: Voter ID

Posted March 15, 2013
Updated August 12, 2013

— North Carolina lawmakers have begun drafting a bill that would require voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls. Below, WRAL News answers some common questions and misconceptions from both sides of the issue.

Voter ID On the Record: Voter ID

The General Assembly passed a similar bill in 2011, but then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed the measure. Republican lawmakers, who favored the bill, were unable to muster the votes needed to override Perdue's objections.

This year, Republicans, who control the House and Senate, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory say they are dedicated to putting a voter ID requirement into place.

"I think requiring an ID to vote is a common-sense practice that over 80 percent of the people of North Carolina agree with," McCrory said during a recent news conference.

Select a question to jump to the answer

Q: Don’t voters have to show ID at the polls now? What is the current law? 

A: Normally, no. First-time voters who fully execute the registration process before Election Day and those have voted in prior elections are asked only to state their name and address and sign a form in order to receive a ballot.

The exception, according to the State Board of Elections, are those voters who did not use either a driver's license number or the last-four digits of their Social Security number to register to vote. From the state board:

If you are a first-time voter and you did not provide your North Carolina driver license or the last four digits of your Social Security number when you completed your voter registration application, or one or both of those numbers could not be validated, then you will need to provide ID the first time that you vote. If you are required to show ID, you must provide one the following:

  • A current and valid photo identification or
  • A copy of one of the following documents that shows your name and address: a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document.

The State Board of Elections website lays out the current voter registration requirements.

Q: How many states require some form of ID to vote?

A: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states have some form of voter ID law in place or ready to go into effect soon

Those laws range from states that require a photo ID to vote with no exceptions to states that require voters to show any of  "a wide array of IDs that are acceptable for voting purposes, some of which do not include a photo." There are also some states that prefer a photo ID but allow voters to use an alternative method of identification if they do not have one.

Q: Haven't some voter ID laws been blocked by the courts?

A: Yes, although the reasons vary. It's important to know that, in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indiana's voter ID law is legal. 

The most important case to keep an eye on is Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, which is examining conflicts between Arizona's voter ID law and federal voting laws. 

"On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed (with the law's opponents), ruling that Arizona’s requirements conflicted with the NVRA and were preempted by the federal law. In other words, the state butted into an area that Congress controls," reports the online magazine Slate. But as Reuters noted in a recent story, the "dispute over the citizenship registration requirement differs from challenges to state voter ID laws unfolding in courts across the country. The Arizona case focuses on the tension between federal and state authority over elections while the voter ID challenges focus on the laws' alleged discriminatory effects."

Another case that might be more on point in North Carolina is a federal case involving South Carolina's voter ID law. In that case, a federal appeals court blocked South Carolina's voter ID requirements from going into effect for 2012 but ruled they could be put in place in 2013 assuming certain safeguards are in place.

Meanwhile, voter ID laws in Texas have run into bigger problems with the federal courts, which ruled that the state failed to prove that its law didn't discriminate against minorities. Voter ID laws in states like Pennsylvania and Tennessee are making their way through state courts. 

The common theme in all those cases is that states must show that their voter ID requirements don't deprive legitimate voters of their right to vote.

In the 2008 Indiana case, the court held that the state had made it easy enough to obtain an ID that it didn't constitute a roadblock to voting.

"Because Indiana's (photo ID) cards are free, the inconvenience of going to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, gathering required documents and posing for a photograph does not qualify as a substantial burden on most voters' right to vote or represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting," Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

That appears to be the standard North Carolina's law will have to clear, although it's unlikely there is any circumstance in which a newly enacted voter ID requirement doesn't go to court.

"No matter what they do, they will be sued," said Nathaniel Persily, professor of law and political science at Columbia University.

"The things that will make a voter ID law more legal as opposed to less legal is ensuring that the IDs are extremely easy and free to get and that there are fail safes for people who don't have ID," Persily said. The more likely that a legitimate voter will be blocked from voting, he said, the more likely the courts will take issue.

Q: So if North Carolina puts a voter ID law into place, what might I need to vote?

A: That depends on what the law ultimately looks like. As of March 15, Republican lawmakers had not introduced their version of a voter ID law.

Bob Hall on voter ID Expert panel testifies on voter ID

However, if the bill North Carolina lawmakers passed in 2011 can be taken as a guide, every person coming to the polls asking to vote would be asked for a photo ID. Under that bill, those who lack any photo identification would have to apply in advance to their local boards of election for an ID that could be used only for voting purposes. 

Another option to providing ID could be allowing the Division of Motor Vehicles  to issue free or low-cost ID cards. Some versions of photo ID bills would allow identifications issued by state university systems to count. Other variations would allow expired driver's licenses to prove someone's identity.

Other states have allowed alternative non-photo identifications to be used at the polls, but House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and McCrory said they would like to see a photo requirement.

It's worth noting that Democrats have introduced their own voter ID bills, which would allow the voter to submit to a photograph at the polling place as an alternative to producing an ID. However, it's very unlikely those Democratic bills will move forward. 

Q: That sounds simple enough. How many people really don’t have ID?

A: The short answer is we don't know. There have been studies that suggest that roughly 7 percent of voters nationwide don't have a photo ID. 

In North Carolina, the State Board of Elections has said more than 600,000 registered voters might lack photo ID. That would be roughly 9.5 percent of those eligible to vote. 

"It was, frankly, one of the most flawed studies I've seen in this area," said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the driving forces behind the voter ID movement. He criticized the agency for including inactive voters – a group made up mostly of those who have missed voting in recent elections – in the data. 

The state board study matched the state's voter rolls against Division of Motor Vehicle records. It is fair to say that matching two huge databases like that is difficult. People may list their names differently in each – using a middle initial in one data set and their full middle name in another – or not record their name changes in both places, as sometimes happen when women get married. 

While the number of potential voters without ID in North Carolina may be lower than 600,000, it is not zero. A 2011 FDIC study found that 8.2 percent of U.S. households, or about 10 million nationwide, do not have a bank account. That's a strong indication of homes where people may not have an ID that would allow them to open a bank account, voting rights advocates argue. 

Proponents of voter ID point to Georgia, where a voter ID law went into effect in 2008. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "since 2008, 2,244 provisional ballots were cast by voters lacking photo ID. Of those, 658 returned with an ID and 1,586 did not – meaning their votes did not count."

Numbers from Georgia also show relatively low numbers of voters seeking the free identification cards provided for by law.

During a roundtable discussion earlier this year, John Fund of the National Review argued North Carolina would be doing people a favor by requiring them to get identification.

"You can't be part of the mainstream of American life, of American public life, without an ID," Fund said. He pointed to the example of not being able to open a bank account.

But Keisha Gaskins, senior counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said last week that, just because voters are not seeking out the free ID cards, doesn't mean they don't need them. Health issues and hectic work schedules can keep people away from government offices, she said. Merely making IDs available isn't the same thing as making sure all voters have an appropriate ID. No state had taken that step, she said.

"If the government was actually getting people IDs, that would be a different issue," Gaskins said. Speaking of the Georgia law and the 2011 North Carolina proposal, she said, "This is not an aggressive government program going out and getting people IDs, making sure you have them in time for the election." 

Legislative Republicans, including House Elections Committee Chairman David Lewis say they are committed to the "gold standard" of everyone having an ID who needs one to vote.

"For those folks out there who don't currently have a photo ID, we believe that, with enough time and enough outreach and enough devotion to the process ... we'll be able to assure that everybody has the chance to vote," said Lewis, R-Harnett. 

Q: What are the arguments for voter ID?

A: One argument is that voter ID could prevent mistakes at the polls. One can imagine a system where a bar code from a driver's license will automatically bring up someone's registration record and the right ballot style. That could help prevent situations such as when two Durham men with the same name encountered problems voting in 2012. Election officials say it is not uncommon for voters to confuse those with similar names, particular fathers and sons who are "senior" and "junior."

However, the most common reason to enact a voter ID law is that proponents say it will prevent fraud at the polls. Specifically, they say, it will prevent people from voting in the names of other valid voters, dead people or casting a ballot for a name that was registered fraudulently.

Q: How big of an issue is voter fraud?

A: Voter fraud appears to be rare, but not non-existent.

A News 21 reporting project found that of 2,068 election fraud cases identified since 2000, 10 cases involved the type of in-person voter impersonation voter ID is meant to curtail.

"It's a negligible amount, but it's not zero," Gaskins said. At least one case of in-person voter fraud has been identified in North Carolina. But other cases of election fraud would not have been stopped by voter ID. For example, voter ID would not have stopped three Wake County voters who tried to vote twice in 2008.

Efforts to diagnose voter fraud through research are also similarly fraught with problems and errors, but advocates for voter ID measures argue that one reason fraud charges are rare is that the crime is hard to prove.

"I would say you don't have many cases of people being charged or convicted of voter fraud because it's so easy to do and so hard to prove under the current laws that we have," Lewis said during a recent taping of "On the Record."

"When you talk to (district attorneys) and law enforcement around the state, they will tell you, 'Hey, this is only a Class I felony to do this at the most. We have more important things to do.'"

Columbia's Persily, who does not embrace the idea that a voter ID requirement will prevent huge numbers of people from voting, said that it won't stop any significant amount of fraud, either.

"It's imaginary fraud against invisible voters," he said.

Voter ID proponents also argue that, if it doesn't eliminate actual fraud, it clears away perceptions of fraud. That argument doesn't hold water either, he said, pointing to a 2008 Harvard Law Review article he co-authored finding "voters who were subject to stricter identification requirements believe fraud is just as widespread as do voters subject to less restrictive identification requirements."

Q: I understand civil liberties groups have raised concerns about voter ID, but aren't there a lot of people who think it's a good idea? 

A: Yes. Public opinion polls regularly find high levels of support for voter ID laws. An October WRAL News poll found  69 percent of registered voters would like to see a photo ID requirement put in place. A February Elon University Poll found support for voter ID at 72 percent statewide, with more than half of all Democrats and 92 percent of Republicans backing the idea. 

In response to this, critics of voter ID policies say that, just because a measure is popular, doesn't mean the majority should get to limit the rights of a minority population.

"Perhaps there needs to be another poll to survey the people and ask the people if they would like to have their constitutional rights denied," Rep. Alma Adams, D-Greensboro, said in a recent news conference.  

Q: What are other arguments against photo ID?

A: As noted above, the chief concern is that it will prevent some people from voting. However, it's unclear how big that population would be.

"The idea that 10 percent of North Carolinians aren't going to be able to vote because of this is ridiculous," Persily said.

That said, there's some question as to whether some populations might be more likely not to have an identification card and therefore might have a harder time voting. The Board of Elections study suggested women, minorities, elderly voters and college students might be more likely to lack the required identification.

A Washington University in St. Louis study from the 2012 election suggested "Latinos and African Americans under age 30 were disproportionately asked for identification, even in states that do not have voter ID laws."

Other questions revolve around whether poll workers would be adept at spotting fake identifications or whether the addition of an identification requirement will slow down the process for everyone.

Aside from the practical questions of whether an ID requirement will do any good and can be put in place effectively, there are more scholarly arguments.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said that qualifications to vote are set out by the federal and state constitutions. All the state constitution requires, he said, is that a person be a citizen, reside in the state for more than 30 days and not be disqualified from voting by being a felon. Requiring an ID, he said, amounts to adding another qualification to vote.

"The constitution says the General Assembly can effect laws involving registration, but it doesn't say that you can do law regarding voting," Michaux said. "A photo ID is a qualification for voting, but it's not in the constitution."

Jeanette Doran, executive director and general counsel for the Institute for Constitutional Law, takes issue with that interpretation. Currently, she said, voters are required to sign an attestation that they are who they say they are. She likened the the photo ID requirement to that attestation.

"Requiring a photo ID is simply requiring proof of the qualifications set out in the constitution," she said.

Q: What would it cost to put voter ID in place in North Carolina?

A: Without seeing the bill itself, it's impossible to say what the cost of a voter ID requirements might be. 

However, a fiscal note attached to the 2011 voter ID bill suggested the initial cost of providing free IDs to those who need them might be around $2 million in the first year, with smaller ongoing costs in the following years. The fiscal note did not estimate the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating more people who might be caught perpetrating voter fraud.


This blog post is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • Plenty Coups Mar 19, 2013

    "It is the lib way to whine when things finally...."
    "Awwwwwww, yoyu are going to throw a tantrum..."

    I would venture to say that most of my posts with the ideologues, are fact checking their usual wild claims, made up nonsense, and unsubstantiated hyperbole. I will continue to do so. I don't have a problem with moderate republicans similar to Bob Dole, Dwight Eisenhower, Arlen Specter etc. but sadly, too many of them nowadays are simple ideological zealots.

  • junkmail5 Mar 19, 2013

    That's luducrious. Women just dont have IDs?

    they have VALID (for voter ID laws) ones less often than men.

    Because if you changed your name when you got married but didn't update your license, it's not valid for voting.

    Likewise certain other groups of women (nuns and elderly women for example) are less likely to have current ID for cultural reasons.

    That isn't being sexist, that's presenting documented facts.

    Again it's not saying "this group doesn't have ID" it's saying "this group is MORE LIKELY to not have ID"

    Statistics aren't sexist, they're just numbers.

  • ncouterbanks69 Mar 19, 2013

    I suppose it will become law in NC as there's nothing really to stop it. But I will do my job to publicize every blunder, including this one, the General Assembly makes until such time as they are voted out of office.

    Of course you will. It is the lib way to whine when things finally do not go that way. Just remember these guys are finally actually getting something done and they were voted in for a reason. Hopefully this is the first in a long long run of a GOP controlled NC.

  • housemanagercary Mar 19, 2013

    "The Board of Elections study suggested women, minorities, elderly voters and college students might be more likely to lack the required identification."

    That's luducrious. Women just dont have IDs?

  • junkmail5 Mar 19, 2013

    You've had a week to give me 3 major policy differences. Nothing. LOL

    Between the republicans and democrats? that's easy

    Gay marriage
    Voter ID
    Unemployment benefits

    that's just stuff that's come up in the last month or so.

  • driverkid3 Mar 19, 2013

    Plenty Coups::::But I will do my job to publicize every blunder, including this one, the General Assembly makes until such time as they are voted out of office.

    Awwwwwww, yoyu are going to throw a tantrum every time they do something you don't like, even though they were voted in by a majority of people that were tired of the muck the dems drug us through. Your word already means very little to a lot of people, this is going to make you look even more bratty.

  • Brian Jenkins Mar 19, 2013

    The poor already get everything else for free , why would liberals want to not give the poor a free id? They are very important in todays world.

    What is it about the poor do liberals hate?

    These same poor people can't legally buy a firearm, another right.. the 2nd actually.
    March 19, 2013 8:38 a.m.
    Report abuse

    You've had a week to give me 3 major policy differences. Nothing. LOL

  • Plenty Coups Mar 19, 2013

    "This will become the law and I would suggest you get used to it"

    I suppose it will become law in NC as there's nothing really to stop it. But I will do my job to publicize every blunder, including this one, the General Assembly makes until such time as they are voted out of office.

  • PanthersFan45 Mar 19, 2013

    Just another Photo ID in a long list of them that have been implemented over the years. Modernization and/or Security have been a big part of the changes to every ID system so it doesn't bother me if its for Airports, Libraries, Banking, Voting, or the DMV. I don't call ANY of these a waste of time or money ..... its the world we live in now a days. You can be in denial w/a stale argument or you can get with the times and not defend the "stone-age". This will become the law and I would suggest you get used to it.

  • pelosi-rulz Mar 19, 2013

    The poor already get everything else for free , why would liberals want to not give the poor a free id? They are very important in todays world.

    What is it about the poor do liberals hate?

    These same poor people can't legally buy a firearm, another right.. the 2nd actually.