Politics & Government

What will happen if voter ID comes back to NC? Here’s what happened last time

More from the series


North Carolina constitutional amendments

Coverage from The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun of the constitutional amendments you’ll vote on in the November 2018 elections.

Expand All

Should you have to show a government-issued photo ID before a poll worker hands you a ballot?

Voters will be asked this fall whether a requirement for photo identification before voting should be written into the state constitution. The proposed photo ID amendment is one of six constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Photo voter ID has been a years-long dream for North Carolina Republicans. Legislative Republicans propelled the proposed amendment onto the ballot with all Republican and no Democratic votes..

There’s no way to know for sure what photo ID the state legislature would say is acceptable. The legislature plans to return to work in November, and that’s probably when they’ll pass a law based on the constitutional amendment, if voters want it.

“Nobody that’s not allowed to vote should be voting,” said Charles Hellwig, Wake County Republican Party chairman. “We want anyone who should be allowed to vote to vote.” The legislature would pass a law that federal courts would accept, he said.

What happened last time?

Opponents contend that requiring a photo ID will keep some people from voting. They point to voters’ experiences in 2016, when the state had a photo ID law, to show what can happen. The state passed a photo ID law in 2013 that was alive for a short time and was used in the March 2016 primary before a federal court threw it out.

Older voters, students, and people without licenses were turned away from the polls or cast ballots that didn’t count in 2016. Some older voters who didn’t drive had trouble getting special IDs from the DMV, The News & Observer reported.

“About 80 percent of senior citizens don’t have access to public transit in the towns they live in,” said Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a left-leaning voter advocacy nonprofit that is part of a group opposing all the proposed amendments. “They already have a difficult time getting to the polls.”

In the 2016 primary, some students without North Carolina drivers licenses were turned away or cast provisional ballots they were unsure would be counted, The N&O reported.

As the federal case over the 2013 elections law was underway, the legislature voted to alter it to allow voters with a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an acceptable ID to declare why they couldn’t get one and cast a provisional ballot.

A court brief Democracy North Carolina filed as part of the federal lawsuit said that some voters were offered provisional ballots and “reasonable impediment” forms and some were not. Depending on what county they lived in, some people who signed reasonable impediment forms had their ballots counted, and some didn’t.

Charles R. Young Sr., a retired lawyer who’d lived in Hickory for decades, went to vote in the March 2016 primary without a photo ID and wasn’t allowed to cast a ballot.

“I went to the precinct where I’ve been voting for a long time, 36 years,” Young said in an interview.

“They all knew me. They wanted a driver’s license. I was real proud of myself. I went back home and got my driver’s license. It had expired. They told me to get my valid license.”

Young said he’d been traveling and misplaced his wallet. He didn’t have time to find it and get back to the polls before they closed.

Young said an election official apologized to him later because he should have been offered a provisional ballot.

He said it’s “not a big deal’ that he wasn’t allowed to vote, although it broke his string of consistent voting in primaries and elections since 1977.

“Even on bonds, I always voted,” he said.

Young is a registered Democrat, but he hasn’t always been. State Board of Elections information shows Young voted in Republican primaries from 2000 to 2014. He said in an interview he’s voted straight Republican tickets, straight Democratic tickets, and split tickets.

He’s voting against all the proposed amendments including voter ID. “It’s to discourage people from voting,” said Young, 76.

“They’re trying to (obstruct) some voters who usually vote Democrat. It’s pretty obvious to me.”

An audit of votes in the 2016 general election found one case in the 4.8 million votes cast of someone who gave a false name in order to vote. A Catawba County woman impersonated her deceased mother to vote for Donald Trump.

Still, voter ID supporters say a law is important to public perceptions of election integrity.

“It’s an incredibly important right of all citizens to vote,”said Hellwig, the Wake GOP chairman. “Let’s protect it.”

What happens elsewhere?

Thirty-four states ask voters to show some form of identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Not all of them require photo ID. In some states, a utility bill, fishing license, pay check or other government documents with the voter’s name and address will do.

Ten states that ask for photo IDs allow people who don’t have them to vote anyway.

Seven states have what the National Conference of State Legislatures calls “strict” photo ID. There, people who don’t have acceptable identification cast provisional ballots that are counted only if the voters return to an elections office with ID by a deadline.

No one can say what a new North Carolina voter ID law would look like, but the 2013 law offers some ideas.

The 2013 law said acceptable IDs were North Carolina driver licenses, special ID cards, passports, veteran identification cards, military identification cards, tribal identification cards, and driver’s licenses from other states for voters who registered within three months of the election. The law excluded some forms of photo ID that other states accept, such as government employee identification cards and student IDs.

People who didn’t have an acceptable form of ID were told they could get a free one from the DMV if they had certain documents.

Studies to show whether photo ID laws disenfranchise voters or drive down turnout have results that are all over the place, the N&O reported.

Some studies have said the laws make no difference, while others say they cause turnout to drop.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office study from 2014 looked at turnout in two states with voter ID laws, Kansas and Tennessee, in 2008 and 2012. It found that turnout declines were steeper in those states than in four others chosen for comparison. Drops in turnout were larger for registered voters ages 18-23 than they were for those ages 44-53, the GAO study said. Turnout declines were bigger for people registered less than one year than for those registered for 20 years or more, and the declines were bigger for African-American registrants than for white, Hispanic and Asian-American registered voters, the study said.

The GAO also looked at 10 other studies of voter ID. Five of those showed no “statistically significant effect on turnout,” the GAO reported. Four of the studies found decreases in turnout and one found a statistically significant increase.

The North Carolina voter ID law that a federal appeals court panel overturned in 2016 was part of a package of election laws that reduced the early voting period by a week, ended same-day registration during early voting, eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and outlawed out-of-precinct voting, The N&O reported.

In their ruling, the judges wrote “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Popular in polls

Public opinion polls in North Carolina show that photo ID is popular. A High Point University Poll conducted in September of all adults found that 66 percent supported the voter ID amendment and 23 percent were opposed.

An Elon University poll of registered voters in September found that 63 percent supported the amendment and 20 percent were against it. White voters like the amendment much more than black voters, the poll found. The amendment had 72 percent support among whites and 38 percent support among African-Americans.

Becki Gray, senior vice president of the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, said problems that cropped up in the 2016 primary can be solved administratively. They aren’t a reason to reject voter ID, she said.

If voters decide they want photo ID, it will be up to the legislature to write the law and “up to the administrative branch to make sure it’s done smoothly and in a fair and equitable way,” she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner
Follow more of our reporting on NC Constitutional Amendments

See all 9 stories
  Comments