Our state’s voters will weigh a host of changes to the N.C. constitution this fall, but it seems like no ballot issue is more emotional than North Carolina voter ID.

Our Republican-led General Assembly wants North Carolina to be the 35th state to require some form of identification to cast a ballot. The state legislature has passed a law that will ask voters to approve adding a generic voter ID requirement to the state constitution.

[Longleaf story: 6 N.C. constitutional amendments you will vote on in 2018, explained]

Voter ID laws vary widely from state to state. Some have a strict photo ID policy, others accept identification without a photo. Some states will let voters cast a provisional ballot without ID, others will not. Here’s a great state-by-state resource from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But proposed North Carolina voter ID laws have always been controversial. Some of the opposition is on the concept of requiring identification to vote in general. Evidence shows that minority voters are disproportionately affected. Others are especially worried about how it would be implemented in our state.

Here are the facts on North Carolina voter ID.

What do people have to show to vote today in North Carolina?

Under current law, people wanting to vote have to state their name and address but do not have to provide ID.

Poll workers check the potential voter’s name and address against the list of registered voters. If a person’s stated name and address appear on the list, they’re given the ballot.

If not, the person is asked to fill out a provisional ballot and the State Board of Elections later determines if it’s valid.

When you register to vote, the form does ask you to provide your driver’s license number or last four digits of your Social Security Number. But if you don’t have either, you can also enclose a copy of a valid photo ID or some official document that shows your name and address — like a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.

Those documents are governed by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

What is the General Assembly proposing for voter ID?

The General Assembly is proposing a North Carolina voter ID provision to the state constitution. The language is pretty general. All it says is that North Carolina will require photo ID to vote in person and that the General Assembly will come up with laws to define the requirements.

This is one of those rare cases where the legal language is super straightforward. Here is the text that would be added to the state constitution if voters approve it this fall: “Voters offering to vote in person shall present photographic identification before voting. The General Assembly shall enact general laws governing the requirements of such photographic identification, which may include exceptions.”

What ID would be accepted? How would people get ID?

We have no idea. That’s one of the controversial parts of this.

In many cases, the General Assembly will draft implementing legislation alongside the proposed constitutional amendment. In this case, they didn’t. Lawmakers are going to wait until the amendment is passed and then come up with the rules to carry it out.

When will I have to show voter ID?

Again, we don’t know. Not this year, though.

What’s the argument for voter ID?

The main argument for voter ID is that it’s a tool to maintain the integrity and security of our elections. Without requiring voter ID, it’s not that difficult to impersonate another voter or to cast multiple ballots.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can create voter ID laws to protect against voter fraud when a 6-3 majority upheld Indiana’s strict voter ID law.

In today’s world, America is very concerned about election hacking and security. Voter ID is a way to strengthen it.

Is voter fraud a thing in North Carolina?

It doesn’t appear to be very common, but it does happen.

The Heritage Foundation has tracked more than a dozen election fraud cases in North Carolina since 2012. Most involve a person voting who is ineligible, or somebody voting multiple times.

One of the best-known cases involves a man convicted of voting in three states: North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee in the 2012 presidential election.

Of course, this is a relatively small number of cases. A professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles wrote in the Washington Post that he tracked only 30 or so voter fraud cases between 2000 and 2014, out of more than a billion ballots cast.

However, rooting out voter fraud has not been a super high priority for federal prosecutors until recently. Under the Trump administration, though, that’s changing.

In August 2018, federal prosecutors indicted 19 foreign nationals for illegally voting in the 2016 elections in North Carolina.

What are the arguments against North Carolina voter ID? Why do people say it’s racist?

The main argument against voter ID is that it’s unduly burdensome and unfairly discriminates against minority voters.

Voting is a fundamental constitutional right, and anything that infringes upon that is problematic. It is pretty clear that black voters disproportionately lack photo ID.

Multiple studies have shown that African-Americans disproportionately do not have driver’s licenses or similar identification. A Brennan Center study in 2006 showed that some 25% of black voting-age people nationally didn’t have government ID, while only 8% of white voters lacked it1.

It’s also harder for poor people to find the time and/or money to obtain government ID.

Have African-American voters been harmed in other states with voter ID laws?

It’s unclear.

Some studies have indicated that turnout was a few percentage points lower in states where strict photo ID requirements were implemented. But they generally fail to control for external factors.

The New York Times also reported that estimates of voters without ID are generally inflated. A Harvard study in Texas showed that only 4.5% of registered voters didn’t have ID, and only 1.5% of people who actually voted in 2012 didn’t have ID.

It appears that while there may be an impact on minority groups’ ability to vote due to voter ID, it’s likely small.

A political scientist named Benjamin Highton rounded up all the quality studies on the issue and found “modest, if any, turnout effects of voter identification laws,” according to the Washington Post.

Didn’t the courts strike down voter ID in North Carolina?

Kind of.

Two years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a multifaceted voting law passed by the state legislature in 2013. The law instituted a strict voter ID requirement, reduced the number of early voting days, ended same-day voter registration and disallowed voting outside your assigned precinct.

The voter ID requirement was briefly in effect in North Carolina, but just for the March and June 2016 primary elections. It required a valid, unexpired photo ID from a government agency, like a driver’s license, passport or tribal enrollment card.

This is the one where the court said the law’s provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Judged determined that legislators acted based on racial data and knowledge that African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

So the entire law was struck down — not specifically the voter ID part. But in effect, North Carolina had a voter ID requirement, and then it didn’t.

It’s also worth noting that the courts found evidence that North Carolina voter ID was intended to suppress minority voter turnout, regardless of what impact it might have.

Photo of the Court of Federal Appeals (Lewis F. Powell Courthouse) in Richmond, Virginia, by Acroterion via Wikipedia (Creative Commons).

How do the people of North Carolina feel about voter ID?

Voter ID is overwhelmingly popular in North Carolina. Numerous polls show that 60 to 65 percent of North Carolinians support some form of voter ID requirement, compared with only 20 to 35 percent who oppose it.

Anecdotally, it appears that most people think showing ID to vote is a common-sense approach to security.

How should I vote on North Carolina voter ID?

It depends. Like most things, this is a partisan question. Most Republicans favor the voter ID proposal, and most Democrats oppose it.

It’s a little simplistic, but you can ask yourself these questions:

  • Is preserving the integrity of North Carolina’s elections worth the small chance that some voters may be kept from voting? If so, vote yes.
  • Do you trust that the General Assembly will make it reasonably easy for people without ID to obtain one and vote? If so, vote yes.
  • Is preserving the ease of voting for people without ID worth the small chance of voter fraud? If so, vote no.
  • Do you believe that the General Assembly is trying to keep African-Americans from voting? If so, vote no.

What will happen with North Carolina voter ID if it’s approved?

If voters approve the amendment to put a photo ID requirement to vote in the state constitution, the General Assembly will then write legislation to codify the requirements.

Then brace yourself for lawsuits.


  1. Hi Andrew! I’m new to your newsletter, and thought I’d choose a couple of controversial topics (NC education funding; up-and-coming young NC pols/activists to watch; Voter ID) to see what your publication is all about.

    OMG! What a crappy job you’ve done on Voter ID! I have a number of reasons for saying this, but I’ll limit this to just a couple. Under the umbrella, “Should I Vote for Voter ID?”, you say: Well, if you want to strike a blow for election integrity. Higher up, though, you cite a study from 2000-2014 that found 30 illegal votes among more than a billion cast. A billion! (More recently, the NC Board of Elections reported 441 illegal votes in 2016…wait for it…per 4.8 million cast.) Sound like integrity under attack to you?

    Earlier still, you refer to the amendment language as “general”. How about ‘sloppy’? Or, ‘cynically vague,’ if you like. For example, what type of ID would we have to show? The NC legislature says it’ll decide that AFTER the vote. Wait, what? Would you even buy a hamburger before knowing what’s going in between the bun? I wouldn’t.

    This amendment is anything but a fair-minded effort to protect anything. Except, perhaps, single-party rule in Raleigh. (Ah…now I get it!)


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