WASHINGTON -- Voting rights advocates were at least somewhat pleased when the North Carolina General Assembly unexpectedly voted in June to modify the state's strict requirement that voters present government-issued photo ID at the polls. But now, they're concerned that the state won't adequately educate people about the softened ID law before it goes into effect next year.
In July 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) had signed an extensive package of voting restrictions that included the photo ID provision along with cuts to early voting and the elimination of same-day registration. A federal judge is currently hearing arguments over whether that law discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and students. The trial is considered one of the biggest tests of the recently weakened federal Voting Rights Act.
Supporters of voter ID laws argue that they combat in-person impersonation fraud (although the supporters present little evidence of such fraud), while opponents say they reduce turnout among minorities and younger voters.
The new law passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in June allows voters to use an alternative form of ID at the polls if they can declare a "reasonable impediment" that prevented them from presenting an appropriate photo ID. While some conservative advocates were upset about the legislature's move, state lawmakers defended it as providing a "fail-safe" for eligible voters who, for instance, lost their driver's license a couple of days before an election. In response to the new language, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder set aside any argument over the voter ID provision for a later hearing.
Now, civil rights advocates are asking how the state plans to mitigate the inevitable confusion over the new exceptions, after all that was done to tell voters about the photo ID rule in the first place. During last year's midterm elections, poll workers warned voters that they would need a government-issued ID to vote in 2016, and the state mailed notices to 218,000 North Carolinians whom it suspected lacked an acceptable form of identification.
"They’re gonna stick to the law that says you need to present a photo ID when you come to vote, so it's going to be small print what the alternatives are and that’s a concern," Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, told The Huffington Post.
The reasonable impediment exceptions to showing a photo ID include lack of transportation or a birth certificate, disability or illness, and work or family responsibilities. If a voter declares an impediment along with the last four digits of the individual's Social Security number and his or her date of birth, the voter's ballot should be counted. Voters may also present an alternative form of identification, like a utility statement or bank bill, along with their impediment explanation. Voters over the age of 70 may vote with an expired form of government-issued identification if it was unexpired on the day they turned 70.
Hall said his group is still encouraging North Carolinians to be proactive about obtaining a photo ID, despite the latest legal changes.
"We are sending the message that if you don’t have an ID, now is the time to try and get one, but if you don’t get one, don’t be discouraged because there are other ways to participate," he said.
While Hall called the revised law's mandate to educate the public about the changes a "rhetorical flourish" since it didn't allocate new funds toward the effort, the State Board of Elections is pressing ahead with plans to notify voters that they don't need to sit out the election if they lack a driver's license, a passport, or a military, veterans or tribal ID card.
"We intend to and have begun to educate the public about the exceptions," board spokesman Joshua Lawson told HuffPost. "We don’t want to cause people to pre-emptively decide not to show up."
Lawson said the State Board of Elections will be running public service announcements about the changes, using funds provided under the 2013 voting legislation, and is considering whether to send new mailers with an updated explanation to the voters who received warning notices. The state will also help voters who were born in the state but don't have a birth certificate obtain alternate types of documentation for a free ID card.
"[The 2013 law] did include an allocation for voter outreach -- about $1 million a year -- so that is what was used to form the voter outreach group," Lawson said. "There was already a pre-existing mandate that we’d be educating around the requirement, so it wasn’t seen as something that was an entirely new and unfunded mandate that we go forward with education around reasonable impediment and changes to expiration dates."
Hall warned that the state will have to be diligent about educating poll workers, since the new law involves relatively complex exceptions. A Democracy North Carolina report found that confusion about voting requirements among poll workers contributed to voter disenfranchisement in 2014.
"That’s really where the interactions with voters are. The voter's experience is going to be defined by how well trained the precinct officials are. Most of them do a fine job with most voters, but some of them make mistakes," Hall said. "By far most voters will have an ID and their experience will go smoothly, but it's that small percent where the system gets tested, and human error can really create problems and cause lines to get longer."