Durham, N.C. — Lisa Guraya wasn't surprised earlier this month when poll workers at an early voting site near Duke University told her she didn't have the right kind of photo identification, but the sophomore knew she should be allowed to vote anyway.
She is one of at least 864 voters across the North Carolina who came out to vote early in person but did not have an acceptable ID with them during the first election they have been required in the state.
More than half of those who lacked ID just forgot their documents and will be able to bring an ID card to their local board of elections office. But Guraya is among the 378 who, as of Saturday afternoon, said they do not have a North Carolina driver's license, U.S. passport or other acceptable identity document.
In Guraya's case, she had only her Alabama driver's license. Under new voting rules, she was able to claim a "reasonable impediment" to having the correct ID, but she said the process wasn't smooth.
"The person who I asked wasn't even sure at first how to do a reasonable impediment ballot," recalled Guraya, who has more reason than most undergraduates to be well versed on voter ID laws. She's from Shelby County, Ala., from whence the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder originated. That decision helped pave the way for voter ID laws like North Carolina's.
"It just made me not completely sure my vote was going to go through," she said.
The North Carolina General Assembly created voter ID requirements as part of a sweeping election reform law in 2013. Originally, that law would not have allowed any voter to cast a ballot without an acceptable ID. It was later revised to give voters the option of filling out an affidavit in lieu of showing photo ID. This reasonable impediment exception says that, if a person can't show an acceptable ID, he or she can provide other pieces of information, such as the last four digits of a Social Security number, and explain why he or she doesn't have an ID.
Election officials say they will follow up with these voters after the March 15 primary to help them obtain the right documents. The early voting period closed Saturday, and the primary is Tuesday.
Voter ID rules were controversial when they moved through the General Assembly and remain the subject of lawsuits in federal court. Opponents say the rules make it hard for the state's most vulnerable citizens to vote. In particular, they argue, minorities, the elderly and students are the most likely to be among those without the right IDs. Those arguments were on display during a federal trial that concluded earlier this year. The NAACP and federal government challenged the state rules saying they would disproportionately affect minority voters.
Early voting data does show clusters of those claiming a reasonable impediment near college campuses. While black voters are 22.4 percent of the state's voting population, they are 26 percent of those who said they had a reasonable impediment for not having an acceptable ID.
But as a proportion of those voting early, those claiming a reasonable impediment are a tiny slice of voters – a fraction of one percent of the more than 682,679 who cast early in-person votes.
"The numbers I've seen so far indicate exactly what we predicted. A small percentage of people have had to use the reasonable impediment option," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, one of the chief architects of North Carolina's voter ID law.
Lewis said the rules were not designed to keep anyone from voting, and the reasonable impediment option would make sure there was a safeguard so that no legitimate voter was turned away. And voters who lacked ID were in good company. U.S. Sen. Richar Burr discovered his ID was missing when he turned up to vote on Friday and had to rely on a provisional ballot.
It also would give elections officials a chance to help people obtain photo IDs if they don't have them, he said.
Guraya said that, during her trip home this summer, she will be able to retrieve her passport in order to vote in the November general election. Down the road in Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina sophomore Isatta Feika says she likely won't vote in North Carolina again after experiencing the hassles involving voting with an ID in North Carolina.
"They told me that my ballot would be counted after the rest," said Feika, a global studies major.
That's because those who use a reasonable impediment exception are required to use a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are not counted on election night. Instead they are held until local boards of election hold a canvass the following week. As long as the voter's reason for not having an ID isn't contrary to the law – simply saying you don't agree with the requirement isn't allowed – and isn't challenged, the ballot will be counted, North Carolina Elections Director Kim Strach recently told WRAL News.
If she were going to stay in North Carolina after graduation, Feika said, she might try to obtain a North Carolina license. Instead, she said, "I'm probably just going to register in Georgia and absentee vote there."
Feika and Guraya are typical of those who found themselves without ID at the poll over the past two weeks.
"It's disproportionately affecting people with out-of-state licenses," said Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that has been part of efforts to derail the new voter ID rules and has long helped coordinate voter protection efforts in the state.
Given the numbers who had voter ID issues during in-person early voting, Hall said, he would expect "more of the same" during primary voting on Tuesday.
College students are among those most likely to be carrying out-of-state licenses, Hall said. Locally, boards of elections data do show that addresses on or near the campuses of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke make up sizable clusters of voters with voter ID issues, although they are not always students.
"I didn't have my billfold with me," said Richard Engstrom, a Duke professor with the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences, who lives in Chapel Hill and went to the polls last week.
Engstrom said his wife drove to the polls, so he left his wallet at home. "The process of doing it was pretty straightforward."
Voters like Engstrom who do have ID but just left it at home cannot claim a reasonable impediment. Instead, they are supposed to bring their photo ID to the local board of elections office so their ballots can be counted.
Elections officials have been working to get the word out to voters for the better part of two years now. Those who voted in in the past several elections were told of the pending voter ID rules when they cast ballots in 2014 and 2015. In Chapel Hill, Orange County Elections Director Tracy Reams said she worked with campus political organizations to get the word out.
"We worked really hard to get the word out prior to early voting," Reams said.
Many UNC students, she said, are opting to bring their passport back to the Board of Elections rather than claim a reasonable impediment. That's different from the situation in Durham, where data show voters associated with Duke are claiming an impediment in higher numbers than their UNC counterparts.
"That's another thing we're concerned about, that the interpretation, the administration and how the student is handled, varies from place to place," Hall said.
John Wartenberg, 73, a retiree from Saginaw, Mich., who now lives with his daughter in Youngsville, said he hasn't kept his ID current since he stopped driving. While the voter ID law allows those over 70 to use expired forms of ID, as long as that document expired after they turned 70, Wartenberg's old Michigan license didn't pass muster.
"I'm happy with the way they handled the situation," he said, noting that he had used curbside voting for the first time as well. "I hope the fella I marked on my ballot deserves my vote."