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Photo ID Law To Take Effect In 2020, Unless Federal Judge Intervenes

Amy Townsend
For the first time under new law, North Carolina voters will have to provide photo identification to cast in-person and absentee-by-mail ballots starting with the 2020 primaries in February.

Updated on 12/27/19: A federal court is expected to issue an order next week to block a new North Carolina voter ID law from going into effect for the  primary elections in March. The law requires voters to show a photo ID to cast a ballot. A full trial is still needed to determine if the law should be permanently struck down.

State and county elections officials have been scrambling to educate voters as well as poll workers about the new photo ID law going into effect for 2020. A 12-page informational mailer put together by the North Carolina State Board of Elections will be printed and sent out to the more than four million households across the state.

Early voting for the 2020 primaries starts in February and for the first time under the new law, North Carolina voters will have to provide photo identification to cast in-person and absentee-by-mail ballots.

County elections officials will be training poll workers in January on how to implement the requirement.

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
Wake County Board of Elections Director Gary Sims

"Our goal is not to turn voters away," said Wake County Board of Elections Director Gary Sims.

Under the new law, voters can use a driver's license, U.S. passport, special non-operator ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and free IDs issued by county elections boards, among other accepted forms of identification.

The law also allows voters to use student IDs from approved colleges and universities, including all UNC system schools. Defenders of North Carolina's photo ID requirement say that is a key difference between the new law and a 2013 measure that was thrown out by a federal court for its discriminatory impact on African-American voters.

But critics say the two laws are not that different.

"Some people have been saying, 'Well is this history repeating itself?' said Caitlin Swain, co-director of Forward Justice, a Durham-based racial, social and economic policy organization. Swain is one of the attorneys representing the state NAACP and six local chapters of the civil rights group in a federal lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the implementation of photo ID for the March 3 primary.

"What we would say is, 'History doesn't always repeat itself exactly but it does rhyme'," she said.

Swain pointed out that in Virginia all university and college IDs are accepted for voting, whereas in North Carolina universities and colleges had to go through what she called an onerous approval process to get their IDs accepted for voting purposes.

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
Irving Joyner, left, a law professor at North Carolina Central University and attorney representing the state chapter of the NAACP, and his co-counsel, Caitlin Swain, in the lawsuit seeking an injunction to halt implementation of the new photo ID law.

"The vast majority of community colleges are not on that list currently," she added. Indeed, of the 58 community colleges in North Carolina, 13 are on the current list of schools with approved IDs.

In the lawsuit, the NAACP also argued that the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly passed the new law with the same discriminatory intent it did the earlier law. And to avoid a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, it did so during a lameduck session between the 2018 mid-term elections that saw North Carolina Democrats break the GOP's legslative supermajority and the convening of the newly realigned legislature at the beginning of 2019. And the Republican majority also brushed aside amendments that would have delayed implementation of the new law to allow for more public education, she said.

Swain also noted that the new law shortened the grace period for using expired IDs to just one year from expiration as opposed to four years under the 2013 measure.

"It's one example of a change in the law that actually makes it harder for voters who have residential instability, who lack transportation," she said.

Swain's co-counsel, Irving Joyner, took issue with the fact the informational mailers sent out by the state elections board are only in English, not Spanish, meaning many Latino voters in North Carolina could be deprived of information they need to navigate the new law. But there is Spanish-language information about the new law on the state elections board's website.

Under the new law, voters without ID may cast a provisional ballot but must later present acceptable identification at their county elections board, though there are exceptions to that rule.

"Including a reasonable impediment, a natural disaster exception, and a religious objector exception," said Katelyn Love, General Counsel for the state elections board.

The prospect of a court injunction blocking implementation of the photo ID law is not that daunting to elections officials like Sims, who pointed out that North Carolina has been in this situation before. The previous ID law was in effect for the 2016 primary before being struck down by a federal court for its discriminatory impact, thereby lifting the requirement for the following general election.

A ruling is expected soon on whether the law will be temporarily blocked--and followed by a trial to determine if it should be struck down permanently.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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