Q&A: Changes to NC election laws

Voters will be required to show photo ID when they go to the polls in 2016. Other election changes will kick in during the 2014 elections, including changes to the early voting period.

Posted Updated

Mark Binker


Due to several court rulings throughout 2016, this resource has been rendered out of date.

This post will remain up as a resource, but its information with regard to early voting, same day registration and a few other items is out of date.

The rules for voting in North Carolina are about to change.

House Bill 589, which has passed the General Assembly has been signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, will require voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls starting in 2016. It also makes dozens of other changes to how the state conducts elections, which will start taking effect this fall and continue through 2014 and beyond.

The complex 49-page bill also changes the rules for those spending money on elections, the kind of ballots North Carolina voters will use and the rules for early voting. It also requires lawmakers to study a number of other changes that could be put in place. The bulk of the changes found in the bill are related to eight areas:

Current law: Under state law, voters rarely have to show any kind of identification when they vote. An exception applies to voters who register by mail who did not provide a drivers license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their application. Those first-time voters are allowed to show one of a number of documents, such as a utility bill or paycheck.

Otherwise, most voters only have to state their name and address when they come to the polls to vote in person.

In 2013 and 2014: Photo ID requirements will not be in effect until the 2016 elections. However, both the state and local boards of elections will begin publicizing the new requirement this year. In 2014, voters casting ballots in person during the primary and general election will be reminded of the photo ID requirements coming in 2016 and the fact that free identification cards are available.
In 2016: Starting in 2016, most voters will have to show an acceptable photo ID when they go to the polls. Acceptable forms of ID will be:
  • North Carolina driver's license (Cards may be expired up to four years for voting purposes)
  • North Carolina special identification card (Cards may be expired up to four years for voting purposes)
  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. military identification card, as long as it is either not expired or was issued within eight years of the date it is presented.
  • Veterans identification card, as long as it is either not expired or was issued within eight years of the date it is presented.
  • A tribal enrollment card issued by a federally recognized tribe or a tribe recognized by North Carolina. The card must either have not expired or have been issued within eight years of the date it is presented.
  • A driver's license or special identification card issued by another state, the District of Columbia or a territory of the United States if the voter registered 90 days or fewer before the election.
  • For voters over the age of 70: Any of the other acceptable forms of identification, even if expired, as long as the ID was current as of the voter's 70th birthday.
UPDATED 6/2015: In 2015, the General Assembly created a new exception for voters without IDs. That exception allowed voters without identification to sign an affidavit they had a "reasonable impediment" to obtaining a photo ID. Such impediments could include things such as having your ID stolen, work schedules that did not allow a voter to obtain an ID or problems with transportation.
The 2013 law already other exceptions for very small populations, including for those with religious objections to having their picture taken and those who are eligible to use curbside voting. Those exceptions are laid out on page 2 of the bill summary by legislative staff.

At various points during the legislative session, lawmakers debated whether they should allow other forms of ID to be used. Student IDs for the state-run colleges and universities were a particular point of discussion, but they were ultimately left off the list of acceptable forms of identification.

Free IDs: Part of the voter ID program requires the Division of Motor Vehicles to issue a special identification card free of charge to individuals who sign a declaration saying they don't have an alternate form of photo ID acceptable at the polls. The state vital records office and county registers of deeds will also be required to provide free copies of an individual's birth certificate and marriage certificate to those who need them to complete the application for special identification cards.
As detailed in a fiscal note drafted as a companion to the bill, the state estimates there are between 203,352 and 318,643 registered voters in North Carolina without a state-issued ID.

"This range does not necessarily represent the number of registered voters without an appropriate form of photo identification; it is not known how many of these individuals may possess another accepted from," the note drafted by the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal staff says.

The note estimates the state might spend up to $834,200 issuing special identification cards in 2013 and 2014 and spend up to $24,100 every two years after that.

Pros and Cons: Voter ID was a contentious issue throughout the 2013 legislative session. Backers of the measure say it will increase the confidence voters have in the election system, while opponents say it will place unnecessary hurdles in front of qualified voters, particularly the very young, very old and minorities. This same debate has played out on the national level as well.
Current law: Through 2013, a voter (or near relative of a voter) requesting a mail-in absentee ballot must submit either a handwritten request for a ballot or a form generated by their county board of elections. The county then mails a ballot and a return envelope to the voter. The voter must complete their ballot in front of a witness, and both the voter and the witness are required to sign various documents to indicate the voter is eligible and voted the enclosed ballot.
In 2014: Voters or their near relatives must make a request on a form to be generated by the State Board of Elections. That form will require:
  • The voter's name and address.
  • If someone other than the voter is requesting the ballot, the name and address of that near relative or legal guardian.
  • The address to which the ballot should be mailed, if different from the voter's residential address.
  • The voter's date of birth.
  • The voter's driver's license number, special ID card number or last four digits of his or her Social Security number. If the voter doesn't have any of those numbers, he or she may include documents such as bank statements, pay stubs or utility bills with the request.
  • The signature of the person requesting the application.
To complete the ballot, voters will be required to complete the absentee ballot "in the presence of two voters who are at least 18 and not a candidate or employee of certain adult care homes," according to page 4 of the bill summary. That second prohibition is meant to avoid adult care home operators influencing the ballots of their charges. Both individuals must sign as witnesses. In lieu of two witnesses, the voter could have the ballot notarized. County boards of election will have to create voter assistance teams to help residents of hospitals, nursing homes and other group facilities who do not have close relatives or legal guardians who can help them fill out the ballot.
Current law: Current law provides for a 17-day early voting window, during which any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person. Eligible voters who are not registered or who have moved may also register or re-register to vote during in-person early voting.
In 2014: The measure shortens the early voting window to 10 days, from the second Thursday before the election to no later than 1 p.m. on the Saturday before Election Day. However, the bill requires counties to "offer the same number of early voting hours in presidential elections as were available in 2012 and an equal number of early voting hours in midterm elections as were offered in 2010."

In short, there will be fewer days on which to cast an early ballot, but there could be additional polling places opened – or existing polling places could be open longer – to offset the loss of days.

The measure also eliminates same-day registration during the early voting period, a process that has been a target of some conservative critics.
UPDATE FOR 2016: After multiple rulings by federal courts, same day registration is still available in the state. Voters who cast their ballots during the early voting period will also be able to file a new registration form or change their address.

The bill makes several other changes to how voters register to vote and when they are removed from voter rolls:

Pre-registration ended: Under current law, 16- and 17-year-olds may pre-register to vote so their names will automatically be placed on the voter rolls when they turn 18. The bill eliminates that pre-registration system, as well as a young-voter outreach program for high schools that had been attached to it. Effective September 2013.
Wet ink required: During previous elections, both Republican and Democratic operatives had used systems that allowed voters to "sign" ballots remotely through a portable electronic device. Changes made by the bill provide "only those electronically captured signatures that are on an electronic voter registration form offered by a State agency are considered valid." Other electronically generated signatures will not be valid unless required under federal military and oversees voting laws.
Voter registration drives: The law eliminates an annual state-sponsored voter registration drive. Outside organizations may still hold voter registration drives, but they are no longer able to compensate workers based on the number of registration forms they collect.
Voter list maintenance: The State Board of Elections is now required to seek out ways to share voter information with other states so that ineligible voters can be purged from the voting rolls. Beginning in October, county boards of elections must create forms to allow relatives of dead people and the representatives of those estates to report that a voter has died so they can be removed from voter lists. The provision streamlines a provision in existing law. Concern about the possibility miscreants might vote in the name of the deceased has been a concern for some elements of the voter integrity movement.

Starting in 2014, voters will notice a number of changes when they cast their ballots. In some counties, these will include wholesale changes in voting equipment. For others, the changes will be less noticeable:

Paper ballots: Currently, the state uses two types of voting systems: computerized touch-screen machines and paper ballots on which the voter fills in a small oval to mark candidate choices. In 2018, those computerized touch-screen machines will be outlawed because only systems that "generate a paper ballot or a paper record by which voters may verify their votes before casting them" will be allowed. According to the bill's fiscal note, 36 counties, including Cumberland and Guilford, use touch-screen machines. Replacing those machines will cost $10.9 million, according to the fiscal note.
No straight ticket: Current law allows voters to mark a single space and support all the candidates of one party listed on the ballot. This straight ticket option does not select a candidate for president, nor does it select candidates in nonpartisan races, such as contests for judge. After 2013, the straight ticket option is eliminated.
Wrong precinct: Current rules allow voters who show up to the wrong precinct on Election Day to vote a provisional ballot. Their choices for statewide and countywide offices would count, although their choices for local races in which they were not qualified to vote would be thrown out. After 2013, none of a voter's choices will count if they cast their ballot in the wrong precinct. UPDATE: After multiple rulings by federal courts, the provision banning voters from casting ballots in the wrong precinct will stand. An existing law that allows for certain voters to change their address when they vote if they have changed address within a county stands, but elections officials say that it is better to register by the deadline.
Extending hours: Polling places on Election Day are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Current law allows county board of elections to extend the poll hours until 8:30 p.m. in "extraordinary circumstances," such as for unusually heavy turnout or if voting was disrupted during the day. Starting in 2014, the bill shifts the power to extend voting hours to the State Board of Elections, allowing the board to order the poll remain open extra time equal to whatever time was lost due to a disruption. The time a poll closes is key because any voter in line at that time may still vote, even if they won't cast their ballot until much later due to congestion. Extending the hours gives voters extra time to get in line.
Poll observers: The law allows county party chairmen to appoint 10 at-large election observers for each polling place in addition to two observers per polling place already allowed by law. Under the new rules, those observers will be given more freedom to move about the precinct, including the ability to closely monitor how election officials check in each voter.
Voter challenges: Starting in 2014, any voter in the state may challenge the registration of another voter anywhere in the state if it is not a primary or general Election Day. That is a change from current rules, which required the challenger be from the same county. On Election Day, a voter may challenge the right of another person to vote if they are from the same county. Prior to 2014, those challenges have had to come from someone registered in the same voting precinct. Reasons for challenging a vote can include a number of grounds, including that the person does not live at the address reflected on his or her voter registration, that he or she has already voted or, in the case of a partisan primary, that he or she belongs to another party. Opponents of this measure say it will "open the door to mass challenges and vigilantes causing trouble at the polls."

House Bill 589 makes a number of other changes to election laws that are hard to categorize but will alter how, when and where voters cast their ballots:

Presidential primaries: Currently, North Carolina holds its presidential preference primary in May, along with primaries for most other offices. Under the bill, North Carolina would hold its presidential primaries – and only its presidential primaries – earlier in the year if South Carolina chooses to hold its presidential primary before March 15. Had this provision been in place in 2008 and 2012, North Carolina's presidential primaries would have moved occurred months earlier. The law requires North Carolina to hold both the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries "on the Tuesday after the first South Carolina presidential primary that year." South Carolina has held its Republican and Democratic primaries on different dates.
Fiscal researchers estimated it will cost the state $4 million to hold an earlier primary election for just president, while holding all other primaries in May. North Carolina's May primary often takes place after the races for each party's presidential nomination have effectively been determined. Backers of the measure argue the state will gain influence from holding a presidential primary before primary contests are settled and could get an economic boost from increased spending in the state by the national campaigns.
Instant runoff: North Carolina had created an instant runoff system to fill appellate court seats that become vacant less than two months before an election. The system requires voters to mark their first, second and third choices for an office, rather than returning to the polls when a candidate obtains only a plurality of the vote. When it was used in 2010, that system met with mixed reviews from voters. House Bill 589 eliminates the instant runoff system for judicial races.
U.S. Senate replacements: When as U.S. senator dies, resigns or otherwise leaves office before the end of his or her term, the governor appoints a replacement. House Bill 589 requires that replacement be a registered voter of the same party that nominated the former senator.
Special elections: Cities, counties and other local governments can call special elections for things like issuing bonds, holding alcoholic beverage referendums or approving tax increases. Under current law, those special elections can occur on primary or general Election Days or any day that isn't within 30 days of those pre-set election days. House Bill 589 requires such special elections to be held only "at the same time as a State, county, or municipal general election." There are exceptions to that requirement, including being ordered by the legislature or the courts to hold a special election at a different time or if the election relates to health and safety.
Candidate withdrawal: Currently, a candidate for public office may withdraw his or her name at any point prior to the close of filing. The new law requires that candidates withdraw prior to the close of business on the third business day prior to the close of filing. This will prevent long-serving, established politicians from filing and then withdrawing their names so a favored subordinate can run unopposed at the last minute.

Other sections of the bill make changes to how political candidates and parties report money they raise and spend on campaigns. Although these don't change how someone votes, they could alter what we know about who is funding a candidate's campaign or otherwise helping him or her run for office:

Public money for elections: Current law allows voters to check a box on their tax returns to donate $3 to go to either the Republican or Democratic parties. Other provisions have created a mechanism for the public funding of judicial races and some Council of State races. Those mechanisms have traditionally required candidates raise a certain number of small-dollar contributions in order to receive the public funding. House Bill 589 eliminates both of those public financing provisions. Those who drafted the provision say that taxpayers should not be forced to support political speech with which they do not agree. Backers of the public financing programs, especially for judicial campaigns, say that such programs helps keep the influence of big money out of courtrooms and regulatory agencies.
Raffles: Currently, only governments and nonprofits are allowed to hold raffles. The new election law allows candidates and political committees to hold raffles in order to raise money for candidates. The amount paid for a raffle ticket will have to be reported as a campaign donation.
Contribution limits: House Bill 589 raises the amount an individual can give to a candidate from $4,000 to $5,000 per primary or general election. After 2015, that threshold would automatically increase every two years based on the Consumer Price Index.
Building funds: Currently, corporations cannot donate to political parties or campaigns. However, they may donate to "building funds" for a party's headquarters. The new law expands the use of those building funds beyond the building itself. Parties will now be able to pay for the salaries of up to three staff members, travel and fundraising expenses. This essentially expands the uses for which unlimited corporate contributions may be used.
Stand By Your Ad: Current law requires the sponsor of an radio or television advertisement, whether a candidate or chief of an outside spending group, to clearly disclose who is paying for the ad. Television ads aired by candidates would still have to carry a picture and "visual disclosure legend" for two seconds during the commercial, and radio ads by candidates would still have to carry a two-second disclosure. However, no similar disclosure is required for ads funded by parties or independent spending groups.
Dark money: Allows non-candidate groups, such as 501(c)4 nonprofits, to not report how much they spend on campaign-style ads until after Sept. 15 of an even-numbered election year. Current law requires disclosure of such spending no matter when the advertising airs.
Lobbyists: Lobbyists are already restricted from making and bundling contributions for political candidates. The new law tightens this requirement, making it illegal for lobbyists to take possession of a campaign check in any way, shape or form.

Nine parts of the bill don't change election laws but call for studies of potential changes. These studies, which will be conducted over the next two years by the Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee, may provide fodder for future legislative efforts:

Filling vacancies: The bill instructs the committee to study potential changes to filling vacancies in the General Assembly and the U.S. House. Currently, the governor fills state legislative vacancies by appointing a candidate nominated by the local executive committee of the political party to which the original office holder belonged. U.S. House vacancies are filled by special elections.
Precinct sizes: The bill instructs the committee to study how many voters each precinct – the area where voters share the same polling place – should have. It also allows the committee to study issues such as ways to reduce long lines, the optimal size of a polling place, required parking and "recommend to the General Assembly any legislation it deems advisable."
Second primaries: The committee will study whether to keep or change North Carolina's system of second primaries. Under current law, if the winner of a partisan primary gets less than 40 percent of the vote, the second-place finisher can call for a runoff. The committee is instructed to study whether that system should be different for statewide and Congressional races, whether the 40 percent threshold should be changed or eliminated entirely.
Voting assistance: The committee will study "ways to improve protections for persons requiring assistance in voting places."
Electronic reporting: The committee will make a recommendation as to whether all campaign committees should be required to file electronically. Under current law, many campaigns can file handwritten or typewritten reports on paper. This makes the process of making the reports available to the public and analyzing the material slower and more cumbersome.
Committee threshold: The committee will consider changing the rules for when a person or group has to create a political committee.
Reporting schedule: The committee will consider potential changes for when candidate committees and independent expenditure groups have to report their spending. The committee can also study getting rid of what are known as 48-hours reports, which are filed by campaigns when they receive large-dollar contributions close to an election.
Digital pollbooks: This study is put in the hands of the State Board of Elections rather than the legislature. The board is directed to report on "a secure and feasible method of creating and utilizing electronic pollbooks with digital photographs of registered voters, including a proposed pilot project, by April 1, 2014."

Not all voting provisions that were considered this year became part of the elections bills.

One such measure, a bill that would have affected North Carolina students who decide to vote at their college rather than at their parent's residence, got a lot of publicity. The bill would have ended the tax exemption parents could claim for dependents who register to vote at any address other than their parents' home. It would affect only state income tax, so it wouldn't have much effect on out-of-state students.
However, this provision did not make it into the final elections omnibus bill, HB 589, or any other measure that passed the legislature this year. At this point, it is not due to become law.

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