FAQ: What you need to vote in North Carolina this year

North Carolina's latest voter ID law, and the federal lawsuit blocking its implementation, are explained.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's voter ID law makes photo identification cards available for free, doesn’t require people to show a birth certificate to get one and lets people vote without ID if they swear who they are at the polls.

It's considered one of the more lenient photo ID laws in the country, but a federal judge blocked implementation last week – at least temporarily – saying the General Assembly's actions, past and present, make it likely that the law was "motivated, at least in part, by racially discriminatory intent."

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will eventually review her decision, because Attorney General Josh Stein will appeal. But the timeline, and Stein's decision not to seek an immediate stay of U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs' preliminary injunction, means North Carolinians likely won't need IDs to vote in the March 3 primaries.
The lawsuit at issue is NAACP v. Cooper, filed in the Middle District of North Carolina and arguing that the law violates the federal constitution. There are also two separate lawsuits at the state level challenging voter ID under North Carolina's state constitution, but neither of those has blocked actual implementation so far.
The argument at the core of NAACP v. Cooper is that the law, passed in 2018 after voters added an ID requirement to the North Carolina constitution, makes it more difficult to vote and that it will impact black and Latino voters more than white ones.

In her order, Biggs indicated that the plaintiffs have a good case, and so she'll block implementation until a full trial, or until a higher court undoes her injunction.

North Carolina has tussled over voter ID for a long time, and this is the second law blocked by the federal courts in recent years.

Biggs rejected the NAACP's argument that the new law, passed in Senate Bill 824, "basically re-enacts" the old one, House Bill 589. But Biggs also said that the way Republican lawmakers responded to the last court loss informed her decision because, "rather than trying to cleanse the discriminatory taint ... the legislature sought ways to circumvent state and federal courts and further entrench itself."

This page seeks to answer questions about voter ID in North Carolina – what the law requires, what it doesn't, what the numbers say and what's been argued in the court file. It will be updated as needed. Got a question you don’t see answered? Email us.

Key court filings are quoted and linked below.

Who are the plaintiffs?

This case was brought by the state NAACP and local NAACP branches in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Greensboro, High Point, Moore County, Stokes County and Winston-Salem. They argue that some of their members “will be effectively denied the right to vote or otherwise deprived of meaningful access to the political process … or will have their voting strength diluted” due to the law.

Who’s defending the law?

The General Assembly’s Republican majority wrote this law, but Biggs denied their bid to intervene in the case and defend it. Instead, that falls to Stein, who represents the governor and the State Board of Elections in the case. Republicans question whether Stein, a Democrat, will defend the law zealously, given Cooper’s attempt to veto the bill in 2018 and Democrats' general opposition to voter ID. But so far, Stein’s filings don’t leave much wiggle room, arguing, among other things, that the law “does not deny, abridge, or significantly burden any voter’s right to vote.” Republican leaders were upset when Stein announced last week that, though he would appeal Biggs' preliminary injunction, he would not try to get it overturned for the March primaries.

Don’t most states require ID to vote?

It is true, as North Carolina Republicans have said, that 34 other states have some sort of voter ID law. But only 18 of those have photo ID laws, according to a breakdown from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states allow bank statements and utility bills, for example, as proof of identity. Of the 18 photo ID states, seven have “strict” photo ID laws under NCSL’s definition, and 11 are “non-strict,” meaning at least some voters without acceptable ID can cast a ballot that will be counted without further action from them. NCSL considers North Carolina’s law “non-strict” photo ID "because it allows those who are indigent to have a work around" and vote without ID, Wendy Underhill, head of the NCSL's elections and redistricting team, said in an email.

How has voter ID affected turnout in other states?

This has been the subject of multiple studies, and the answers are pretty consistent: Maybe a little, but often not at all. A study issued in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looking at elections from 2008 to 2016, found “no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age or party affiliation.

“The laws’ overall effects remain close to zero and non-significant whether the election is a midterm or presidential election, and whether the laws are the more restrictive type that stipulate photo IDs,” authors Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons said in their paper.

Other reviews tell much the same tale. In 2017, a University of California, Davis, political scientist named Benjamin Highton cataloged a number of studies and said they "generally find modest, if any, turnout effects of voter identification laws."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2012 that turnout for black and Hispanic voters increased from 2006 to 2010, well beyond population growth, despite Georgia implementing a voter ID law in 2007. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed 10 turnout studies in 2014 and said five found no statistically significant impact on turnout, four found decreases and one found an increase.

How many people don’t have ID in North Carolina, and what’s the racial breakdown?

It's hard to say exactly, but statistics clearly indicate minority voters are less likely to have photo ID than white voters.

North Carolina recently compared its voter registration database to state Division of Motor Vehicles' records and found 617,030 registered voters who may not have a driver’s license or other ID through the DMV. That’s roughly 9 percent of registered voters, and the State Board of Elections planned to target those people with a mailer. Board General Counsel Katelyn Love said this no-match list is “in no way accurate in terms of who doesn’t have an acceptable ID,” partly because so many other IDs would be accepted under the law and partly because the process used to mesh the databases was “very over broad to make sure voters weren’t missed.”

Michael Herron, a Dartmouth College professor in quantitative social science, crunched the numbers for the NAACP and said 10.6 percent of African-American voters are unmatched, compared to 6.5 percent of white voters. For Hispanic voters, it was 11.1 percent.

In 2013, Gary Bartlett, who was then the executive director of the State Board of Elections, published a memo on a similar list of 613,000 people. Thirty-one percent of people on the no-match list were black, Bartlett said, compared with 57 percent white. Black voters made up 22.4 percent of total registration at the time, and white voters 71 percent.

Bartlett said 53 percent of the people on this list were Democrats, and 24 percent were Republicans, with the rest unaffiliated or Libertarians. Sixty-seven percent were women, perhaps because they’re more likely to change their names after marriage or divorce, making it more difficult to match them in the databases.

Several studies reached similar conclusions in other states, including a 2017 study cited by The Economist and a Michigan study that imputed people’s races based on name and place of residence and determined that non-white voters are between 2.5 and six times more likely than white voters to lack photo ID. The researchers said about 0.6 percent of the people who voted in the 2016 presidential election there lacked photo ID and instead signed an affidavit affirming their identity, which is similar to a process laid out in North Carolina's new law.
A study out of Texas, which also looked at documents voters filled out at the polls in 2016 saying they didn’t have ID, found that black voters made up 11.4 percent of voters with ID that cycle and 16.1 percent of those voting without it. For Latino voters, the figures were 19.8 percent and 20.7 percent, respectively.

In its preliminary injunction motion, the NAACP said an independent study in North Carolina from 2012 to 2016 looked at possession rates not just for driver's licenses, but for passports, military IDs, college IDs and others and found that "4.1 percent of white people didn't have one compared to 15.1 percent of African-Americans."

In this file photo, North Carolina voters cast ballots at the Wake County Commons Building. (Photo by Jamie Munden)

What IDs would be accepted in NC?

The law allows driver’s licenses, non-driver IDs from the DMV, U.S. passports, the free voter photo IDs given out by county boards of election, tribal enrollment cards, student IDs from universities and colleges that meet North Carolina’s ID standards, approved state employee IDs, military IDs and veterans IDs. Out-of-state driver’s licenses are accepted only if the voter’s North Carolina registration was within 90 days of the election, signaling a recent move. Voters over age 65 may use expired ID cards if they were valid on the voter’s 65th birthday. The State Board of Elections has a full list of acceptable IDs online. Driver's licenses and other ID cards don’t need to meet federal “REAL ID” standards.

Which college IDs are allowed?

What about public assistance IDs?

No, and this is an argument in the lawsuit. The NAACP argues that a version of North Carolina’s voter ID law written in 2013, before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, would have allowed Medicaid and other public assistance IDs at the polls. After the Supreme Court decision, a more stringent bill was written that “retained only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African Americans,” the NAACP’s legal team argues in court filings. That left out public assistance IDs. This more stringent bill was struck down by the 4th Circuit in 2016. The current law is more lenient, allowing many more forms of ID, but it doesn’t allow public assistance IDs, and the NAACP pointed to a Democratic attempt to add them during the 2018 debates over this law. Every House Republican voted against the change, and Biggs took note of the decision.

What are the differences between the current law and 2013's?

This law is more lenient than North Carolina's last voter ID law. Stein, in a brief for the current lawsuit, ticked off half a dozen differences, arguing that the court shouldn’t block implementation like it did the 2013 version.

This law accepts many more types of ID, including student and government employee IDs. It lets people vote without ID by citing one of several “reasonable impediments.” The old law didn’t have that sort of language until just weeks before the trial challenging it was to begin, and the language lawmakers added then allowed county boards of election to reject such votes for “undefined and vague reasons,” according to Stein's brief.

Under the current law, county boards of election and DMV locations provide free IDs – though that has been put on hold because of the judge's order, and local boards have been told not to issue IDs until further notice. Under the last law, people had to visit a DMV. The previous law was also much broader, curtailing early voting, eliminating same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds in addition to adding a photo ID requirement. It was this omnibus election law that “restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans” that the 4th Circuit described when it said the law’s provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The court also noted that lawmakers had racial data in hand when they wrote that law, informing them how the changes would likely impact black voters. This time, there is “no evidence that the General Assembly requested and used racial data” to draft Senate Bill 824, Stein’s office said in its brief. Biggs addressed that in her order, saying the same key legislators worked on the bill and "need not have had racial data in hand to still have it in mind."

How can this be unconstitutional when the law makes free IDs available?

The plan is to make free ID cards available at local boards of election and DMV offices, and voters wouldn't need any documents to get an ID from their election board. They'd just fill out a one-page form and give their name, date of birth, and the last four digits of their Social Security number. The NAACP branches argue that there are still too many barriers because it’s difficult for some people to travel to one of those offices, which often aren’t on public transit lines, and because the DMV option requires documentation, albeit documentation the state is now required to provide for free. The offices are open only at certain times, “making them functionally inaccessible to voters with work and family responsibilities,” the NAACP argued in one of its briefs, adding that the problems “fall disproportionately on Black and Latino voters.” Stein has argued that the NAACP hasn’t proven this, in part because it hasn’t determined “whether the distance for black or Hispanic voters … is greater than the distance required for white voters.”

But you could also vote without ID right?

Correct. Under North Carolina’s latest law, people without acceptable photo ID can sign an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, saying they are who they say they are and that they have “a reasonable impediment” preventing them from showing ID. A form would be offered listing impediments, including disability or illness, lack of birth certificate, work schedule and family responsibilities. They don’t have to do anything else to get their vote counted, and county election boards can reject these votes only by a unanimous vote saying there are grounds to believe the reasonable impediment form is false. Anyone who has ID but forgets it can also vote a provisional ballot, and their vote will count if they bring their ID to the local board of elections within 10 days. People who vote by mail are generally required to enclose a copy of their photo ID, but they can include the reasonable impediment paperwork instead.

If people can vote without ID, what’s the problem here?

The NAACP argues that the sworn affidavit requirement casts "the specter of criminal retribution over citizens lacking ID who are more likely to be low-literacy, low-income and already uncomfortable with significant government interaction." The time it takes to fill out the affidavit and form is also likely to cause delay and result in longer lines in minority precincts, the NAACP argues. All of this contributes to the law’s “overall chilling effect” on voter participation, the NAACP says. The Attorney General’s Office argues that the law "makes it relatively simple to present ID at the polls” and that it “permits every voter to cast a vote, and have that vote counted."

Did this law get bipartisan support in the General Assembly?

Republican legislative leaders have said this several times, and they’re right by a fairly small margin. Five Democrats supported the bill, though three of those declined to vote against Gov. Roy Cooper after he vetoed the measure.

In November 2018, voters approved, by 55 percent of the vote, a constitutional amendment requiring voter ID. Republican lawmakers moved quickly to write more detailed rules into state law, going back into session before the year was out and a new General Assembly – one now without a veto-proof Republican majority – could take office.

Two Democrats voted for the bill in the House: Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, who lost his seat earlier that year to a primary challenge, and Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, who left the House in 2019 after Cooper appointed him to the North Carolina Industrial Commission.

In the Senate, Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, co-sponsored the bill, but that was after he'd been defeated in a Democratic primary earlier that year and endorsed a Republican in another area Senate race. Two other Democratic senators also voted for the bill: Sens. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland, and Don Davis, D-Pitt. Ford was the only Democratic senator voting later to overturn Cooper's veto. When the veto override came back to the House, only Hall voted with the Republican super-majority.

Do we need this law?

Reviews of past elections indicate that in-person voter fraud, the kind that could be stopped by requiring photo ID at the polls, is exceedingly rare. In a 2017 audit, the State Board of Elections found one such vote referred to prosecutors after the 2016 election. The board's 2013 analysis determined that, out of nearly 40 million votes cast from 2000 to 2012, two cases of in-person voter fraud were referred to prosecutors. The National Bureau of Economic Research study – the one that found no impact on voter turnout – also found that voter ID laws have “no effect on fraud either – actual or perceived.” The authors said that, “overall, our results suggest that efforts to reform voter ID laws may not have much impact on elections.”

How much would this cost to implement?

Roughly $17 million over five years, according to analysis done by the legislature’s Fiscal Research staff. Most of that cost isn’t an expense but a revenue hit for the DMV, which collects about $3 million a year now for “special IDs” – photo IDs that aren’t driver’s licenses. Those cost $13 now but would be free to anyone 17 and older under the photo ID law. Other costs: ID printers for all 100 county boards of elections, an estimated $2 million for voter education and funding to maintain a secure database of registered voters’ photographs.
Voting in N.C., voting generic

What else would this law do?

Voter ID gets the most attention, but the 2018 law also expanded the number of poll observers and loosened the rules for challenging ballots, and the NAACP asked the judge to enjoin those parts of the law along with voter ID. Biggs blocked the changes for challenging ballots, and those are enjoined just like voter ID. The increase in poll observers remains in place. The plaintiffs said in their initial complaint that those two measures increased the likelihood of voter harassment and that the "General Assembly passed these measures despite evidence of significant voter intimidation, including during the 2012 and 2016 elections."

Wait, voter intimidation?

After Roy Cooper won the 2016 governor’s race by fewer than 10,300 votes, Republican attorneys backing Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign filed complaints in 52 counties accusing people of double voting and other illegal acts. Most of these complaints got tossed by local boards of election. A handful of voters, saying they were angry over false allegations against them, sued the Virginia law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky and McCrory’s legal defense fund, accusing them of libel. That lawsuit is ongoing.

What about the state lawsuits challenging voter ID?

There are two: Holmes v. Moore, which argues Senate Bill 824 is violates rights guaranteed by the state constitution, and NAACP v. Moore, which targets the underlying constitutional amendment, saying the Republican majority represents a "usurper legislature" that shouldn't have been allowed to change the state constitution. Holmes v. Moore is moving forward, but a three-judge panel declined to block implementation of the law while the case works its way through the system. NAACP v. Moore was successful in state Superior Court and was argued in October before the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which has not yet issued a decision.


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