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A surprise about the impact of North Carolina's photo ID law

Voter ID sign
Ely Portillo
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WFAE
A sign in south Charlotte about the state's new voter ID law, outside the Sardis Presbyterian Church precinct.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

For a decade, North Carolina Republicans have tried to require photo ID to vote.

And for a decade, Democrats and other groups argued in court — sometimes successfully — that photo ID was unnecessary, that the law would disenfranchise Democrats, particularly Black voters.

Photo ID finally went into effect last fall after being green-lighted by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The March 5 primary was its first statewide test.

Of the 1.8 million people who voted, 473 had their ballots not counted because of photo ID. That’s one rejected ballot for every 3,800 voters.

After examining a database released by the state Board of Elections, there were a few surprises:

  • Slightly more Republicans (443) came to the polls without photo ID than Democrats (438).
  • Slightly more Republicans (174) had their ballots ultimately not counted than Democrats (171).
  • There were at least 298 white voters whose ballots weren’t counted, compared to at least 74 Black voters and seven multiracial voters. Ten Asian voters also had their ballots rejected because they didn’t have photo ID.

It’s too early to say there were no disparities, or that Republican and white voters were impacted more.
The reason is that the Board of Elections hasn’t released the entire voter file from the election, so no one knows how many Republicans went to the polls compared with how many Democrats. Same for voters based on race.

That makes it impossible, as of now, to determine the rate of photo ID disqualifications.

But at first glance, the numbers are in line with the state’s voting pool.

There are 3.2 times as many white voters in North Carolina as Black voters. In the primary, four times as many white voters had their ballots not counted because of photo ID.

There are also about 7% more registered Democrats than Republicans, but we don’t know yet which party turned out in greater numbers on March 5. More people participated in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary, but it’s not clear yet if that was because more Republicans came out to vote than Democrats — or whether more unaffiliated voters chose the GOP ballot.

Photo ID exception form

NC voter ID reminder
NC Board of Elections
/
Voter information graphic
The March 5 primary was the first statewide election under North Carolina’s new photo ID law.

Let’s step back a moment and examine what’s supposed to happen at the polls when a voter shows up without a photo ID.

The voter is given a photo ID exception form. It has a number of boxes a voter can check as to why they don’t have an ID. They include things such as a disability, a lack of transportation and family responsibilities. They can even say they lost or misplaced their ID.

The voter is then given a provisional ballot.

When county elections boards meet to count provisionals, it requires a unanimous vote of the bipartisan elections board to reject the ballot, so long as the photo ID exception form is filled out properly. (If a voter writes that photo ID is against their personal beliefs, that’s grounds for rejection.)

If a voter doesn’t fill out the exception form, they can still vote by provisional ballot. But they have to return to their local elections office and show a photo ID for it to be counted.

In the primary, 1,185 people came to the polls without an ID.

Of those voters, 695 ultimately had their provisional ballots counted. Almost all of them filled out a photo ID exception form, though some people had to return to the elections board office to show them their ID.

Inside Politics wrote about the impact of photo ID after the November municipal elections, when a greater share of voters had their ballots rejected.

After November, the state Board of Elections reminded county elections boards that they must approve properly completed exception forms. That appears to have decreased the number of rejected ballots.

Hard to calculate racial disparities

The Board of Elections data file doesn’t have race data for dozens of voters.

(When looking at the 473 voters who were rejected, I tried to find their race on my own by putting the voter’s name in a different database.)

But the bigger problem when trying to calculate racial disparities is that voters are increasingly not saying what their race is when registering to vote.

Twelve percent of all registered voters in the state have either an undesignated race or are listed as “other.” That makes it extremely difficult to determine the exact impact a new voting law has.

It’s also impossible to know whether some people decided not to vote because they didn’t have photo ID.

What’s next

There is a trial in federal court starting in May over the photo ID law. The NAACP’s complaint alleges that the voter ID provision disproportionately burdens African American and Latino residents in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

And it’s possible Republican legislative leaders could make changes to the photo ID exception form, or get rid of it completely. North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore has said he believes the form undermines the photo ID law.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
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