RALEIGH — The future of voter ID in North Carolina ultimately will be resolved by the courts. But pending lawsuits challenging its legality based on alleged racial discrimination haven’t changed the fact the photo identification mandate will begin statewide in three weeks.
Starting with the early-voting period March 3, most every registered voter will have to show one of six types of qualifying IDs to cast a ballot in person, up through the March 15 primary date.
State Board of Elections Director Kim Strach is confident the state’s first election under the mandate will avoid major troubles, citing training of election officials and a public relations campaign that includes radio and television ads and billboards. Voter guides are going out to more than 4 million households statewide.
“We’ve tried to prepare county boards and the public for this change that’s to come for 2016,” Strach said in an interview, adding election officials “want voters to have a positive experience in every election.”
Original voter ID legislation became law in 2013, but lawmakers delayed enforcement until 2016 to alert voters and give them the chance to obtain IDs, even for free. Changes made last June by the General Assembly allowed more people facing obstacles to get an ID to vote anyway if they fill out a form explaining why they don’t have one and provide other identification.
Hundreds of thousands of cards and letters also have been mailed to registered voters who potentially lack ID to help them get one. There are more than 6.4 million registered voters statewide.
Civil rights groups that have sued or opposed the requirement believe the new “reasonable impediment” exception is confusing and worry voters who for genuine reasons lack a driver’s license, state identification card, passport or other acceptable ID.
“People don’t really know what reasonable impediment means,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP.
A voter who fills out the reasonable impediment form can be challenged by another voter for the reason given for not having an ID, like a lack of transportation or for work schedules or disabilities. Falsely completing the form can be a felony.
“It’s fear-inducing and more intimidating than other kinds of paperwork,” Penda Hair, an NAACP attorney told a federal judge at the close of a voter ID trial last week. It’s not expected the judge will rule before the primary.
Strach said such fears are misplaced. On-site precinct officials don’t evaluate the reason someone gives on the form. Any challenge is judged later by the county’s three-member election board, with rules weighed heavily in favor of the challenged voter.
Everyone who shows up to vote also will be able to at least cast a provisional ballot. Officials determine later the person’s eligibility to vote and if the vote counts. Still, Strach said, voter ID is the law. People who forget an ID at home will have to bring it to the county elections office or their provisional ballot won’t count.
Scenarios and best practices were discussed at a training conference last week in Durham for about 500 election officials across the state. Training videos and “station guides” have been produced for every ballot location and included scripted responses to problems.
“I feel like that we have got a plan,” said Lucy Smith, president of the Elections Board Association of North Carolina and a Buncombe County board member. Buncombe election workers are getting trained next week, and if the law is followed, Smith said, “we should have no problem.”
The NAACP and Democracy North Carolina are distributing hundreds of thousands of their own fliers and voting directions. These and other advocacy groups also will be signing up volunteers at an annual civil rights march Saturday in downtown Raleigh, pledging to educate voters.
“Our message is that people need to go to vote,” Democracy North Carolina Executive Director Bob Hall said. “In fact, they must vote to share their resistance to the effort to make voting harder.”