Raleigh, N.C. — The rules have changed – again.
When North Carolina voters head to the polls for the 2016 general election this fall, they will be working under a set of rules more akin to what they experienced in 2012 than the guidelines that were in place for the March and June primaries.
For those who are confused, need a refresher on the rules, want a reminder of the various federal lawsuits at play or just need the links to state and local election resources, read on. If you have a question that's not on this list, please let us know by clicking on the reporter's name at the end of this post.
Lawmakers passed a sweeping elections law rewrite in 2013, including a much-debated photo identification requirement. Portions of that law were challenged almost immediately in state and federal courts. While the ID requirement was softened somewhat in 2015, the bulk of the law had remained intact, and a federal district court upheld the law this spring.
North Carolina held its first elections under voter ID rules during the March and June primaries.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the voter ID provision as well as other challenged parts of the law, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to reinstate the law for this fall's election.
That means that most voters will not have to show any sort of ID when they show up to the polls this fall.
Voters who believe they are already registered to vote can check online. It's a good idea to check if you haven't voted in a while or have any reason to be unsure about your polling place or other information.
If you have never registered to vote or are moving more than 30 days before Election Day, you will need to update your registration. While there will be same-day registration available this year, election officials say it will be easier for both voters and election officials to register by this year's deadline on Oct. 14.
Many people register to vote by mail, but there are also a number of government offices that will help you, including your local board of elections office.
"One of the opportunities that is way underused is you can register to vote at any one of our Wake County public libraries," said Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections.
That's true of libraries in other counties as well.
The Division of Motor Vehicles and certain "public assistance agencies" are also supposed to offer people the opportunity to register to vote when they come in for services.
No necessarily, but it would be a very good idea.
According to the State Board of Elections, "Inactive voters are still registered voters. If an inactive voter presents to vote, the person will be asked to update his or her address with the board of elections." That means there is a safety valve for you if your voter registration has slipped into inactive status without you noticing.
But please note: voters are put on inactive status after they haven't voted in two federal elections – four years – and if their local board of election has tried and failed twice to reach that voter through the mail.
"Typically this means the voter has moved and we need them update their address," said Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections. If you have moved, it will affect where you vote and which local offices you vote for. And if you have moved across county lines, you will absolutely need to re-register to vote.
Like all election officials, Sims advises that it's easier to correct any potential registration issues, such as a change of address, before the Oct. 14 deadline than after.
If you miss the Oct. 14 deadline, your next best option is probably to vote during the one-stop early voting period, during which you can register and vote at the same time.
However, voters also have the option of registering "unaffiliated," in which case they won't be a member of any political party. In addition to voting in the November general election, unaffiliated voters can choose which party's ballot they want to cast in primary elections.
First, to be very clear: same-day registration is not available on Election Day, Nov. 8.
Same-day registration is available during the one-stop early voting period in advance of the election. You have to register in the county where you live and meet other requirements.
Make sure to bring an acceptable form of residency with you. That proof, which has to show the person's name and current address, can be a North Carolina driver's license, a photo identification from a government agency or "a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document."
North Carolina's one-stop period opens on Oct. 20 and closes Nov. 5. Different counties will have different early voting schedules and open different early voting locations.
The State Board of Elections will have to sign off on locally adopted early voting plans, and there could be some changes. Wake County is one of more than 30 counties where there is disagreement over what the early voting schedule should look like, and the state board will have to make a final decision.
WRAL News will update this post once locations are officially settled.
North Carolina is one of the first states in the nation to mail out early by-mail ballots. Local boards will begin mailing out those ballots on Sept. 9. The deadline to request an absentee by mail ballot is Nov 1.
The ballot must be returned "no later than 5:00 p.m. on the date of the election," according to the State Board of Elections. "The envelope may be mailed or delivered in person to the board of elections’ office." It's also important to know that you will need two people to witness the outside of your envelope or get it notarized.
Most voters will not, although there are two important, but relatively limited, exceptions.
The first exception has to do with those taking advantage of same-day registration.
The other small group of people are first-time voters who registered by mail and for whom election officials were not able to verify their identity through an automated process. New voters are asked to provide either their driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number so their identity can be validated. Sometimes, according to Wake County Board of Elections Director Gary Sims, that validation process fails due to a recent name change or a simple mistake.
Voters who fall into this relatively small category will need to bring a government photo ID or alternative document like a utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck with their address on it. If you have recently registered and have any concern that you fall into this category, you should check with your local board of elections office.
Maybe. In order to vote, you must be at least 18 years old or turn 18 by the date of the general election, Nov. 8.
Nope. The option to mark one oval or box in order to support all of the candidates of a particular political party has been eliminated. Voters must make a selection in each race for which they want to cast a vote.
Voter ID wasn't the only aspect of North Carolina politics challenged in federal court in recent years. Judges ruled in February that the state illegally relied on race when it drew the maps for North Carolina's 13 U.S. House seats in 2011. Lawmakers redrew those maps in February, and new primaries were held in June.
You can use this map to see if your congressional district changed between the 2011 and the 2016 maps.
DISCLAIMER: Address locations are estimates based on Google's geolocation service, with boundaries from official maps provided by the N.C. General Assembly. Keep tabs on your official current district through the N.C. State Board of Elections website. The 2016 map won't take affect until it gets federal approval.
A panel of federal judges did rule that lawmakers unconstitutionally relied on race when they drew North Carolina's 120 state House and 50 state Senate seats. However, because that decision came down in August, the court ruled it was too late to redraw the maps for the fall election. That means next year's General Assembly will be elected using the old, unconstitutional maps and that the next General Assembly will have to redraw the lines.
This is another case where federal courts threw out maps due to problems with constitutionality. Those illegal maps were imposed by lawmakers in 2013 and 2015.
While there is a long history to this case, the upshot is that Wake County voters will choose nine new school board members and three new commissioners this year in districts that were first used during the 2012 election.
Your local board of elections office should be able to help you out, and there are nonpartisan groups such as Democracy North Carolina that offer help to voters. Also, feel free to ask us by clicking on the reporter's name at the bottom of this post.