With more than 55% approval, North Carolina voters approved a change to the state constitution this fall that requires voters to show identification before casting a ballot.

The General Assembly has now passed a law to implement it, making North Carolina the 35th state to require some form of identification to cast a ballot.

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.

North Carolina voter ID laws have always been controversial. Some of the opposition is on the concept of requiring identification to vote in general. Some evidence shows that minority voters are disproportionately affected.

Here are the facts on North Carolina voter ID and how it works.

In this article, we will cover:

What did people have to show to vote before?
What did North Carolina voters approve?
What is in the new North Carolina voter ID law?
What would happen if somebody doesn’t have voter ID?
When will I have to show voter ID?
Why did the governor veto voter ID?
What’s the argument for voter ID?
Is voter fraud a thing in North Carolina?
What are the arguments against North Carolina voter ID?
Didn’t the courts strike down voter ID in North Carolina?
What happens next?

What did people have to show to vote in North Carolina before?

Under the previous law, people wanting to vote have to state their name and address but did 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 did North Carolina voters approve about voter ID?

November’s vote added a North Carolina voter ID provision to the state constitution. The language, though, 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 added to the state constitution: “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 is in the new North Carolina voter ID law?

According to the bill passed into law over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, North Carolina is designing a system that would ask poll workers to compare the photo on a presented ID card to the person standing in front of them seeking to vote.

The General Assembly began taking up the bill starting Tuesday after a public hearing on Monday. The bill ultimately introduced incorporated a lot of the comments from the public hearing, including allowing private and community college IDs to count.

What ID would be accepted?

  • N.C. driver’s license
  • Out-of-state driver’s license, but only if you’re new to the state (i.e. registered to vote within 90 days of the election)
  • Non-driver identification cards issued by the North Carolina DMV
  • U.S. passport
  • Tribal enrollment card
  • Student ID issued by a UNC-system school, state community college or private college (if they follow the rules)
  • Employee ID for state or local government workers
  • Military or veteran ID card

All of these would need to be valid and unexpired, or expired for less than a year, except if a voter is older than 65.

How would people without ID get one?

The bill instructs county elections boards to issue ID cards to registered voters, free of charge, upon request. The voter would have to provide his or her date of birth and last four digits of their Social Security number.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics enforcement would distribute the machines needed to print them up to all 100 counties. The state board is also tasked with starting an “aggressive voter education program” to make sure people know what they need to do. This includes notifying every registered voter who does not have a driver’s license.

The process is super easy. Sen. Joel Ford, a Democrat from Charlotte, introduced an amendment with the support of leadership to create a system where people can get IDs during the early voting period at one-stop polling places.

Giving everyone the ability to obtain free photo ID is an underrated benefit of the voter ID law. This gives thousands more people access to the financial system, air travel, unemployment benefits, rental housing, and other services. Even if you oppose voter ID, this is a great thing.

What would happen if somebody doesn’t have voter ID?

People looking to vote who don’t have a valid photo ID would be able to cast a provisional ballot, which would only be counted if the voter comes and brings a valid ID to the county board of elections before the final tally.

If for some valid reason this isn’t possible, or if the voter had a religious objection to being photographed, or if they lost their ID in a federally recognized natural disaster, the voter would be able to complete a legal affidavit and have their vote counted.

Does the bill address absentee by mail ballot fraud?

Yes. As evidence mounted of election fraud in the 9th Congressional District race, the General Assembly adopted an amendment to the bill that requires people voting absentee by mail to attach a physical copy or provide an electronic version of an acceptable form of identification as they return the ballot.

Like with voting in person, people would be able to sign an affidavit claiming a reasonable impediment to being able to do so.

When will I have to show voter ID?

The bill requires voter ID for 2019 elections, but not for any potential special elections called in the beginning of the year.

The original idea was for the ID system would be set up in time for the 2019 municipal primary elections. That would be a good trial run before the presidential and gubernatorial elections in 2020.

Voter IDs will be available from county boards of election starting May 1, 2019.

Why did the governor veto this bill?

Going in, the thought was Gov. Roy Cooper will veto whatever voter ID plan Republicans work out. That’s why the General Assembly took this up in the lame-duck session.

Beginning in January, Republicans will no longer have a supermajority in the N.C. House or N.C. Senate. But the new representatives elected this November have not yet been sworn in.

The General Assembly as it stands today still has those Republican supermajorities, and they’ll be able to easily override Gov. Cooper’s veto.

However, the voter ID bill that was passed has drawn bipartisan praise for addressing pretty much every objection and loophole that Democrats put forward.

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).

What happens next?

Brace yourself for lawsuits. They’ve already started to be filed.


  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!)

  2. You can’t take an airplane without proper ID
    You can’t get a library card without proper ID
    You can’t open a bank account without proper ID
    You can’t buy alcohol without proper ID
    You can’t join the military without proper ID
    You can’t get a job without a SS #

    Lets help everyone get proper IDs and eliminate this discussion

  3. I think an article noting the differences in this Voter ID bill and the original one passed in 2013(?) would be an instructive way to understand why there was such vehement opposition. It would also clarify to some why the NCGA lost the lawsuit.

    This voter ID bill is reasonable. IMHO, previous iterations were simply pretexts for consolidation of GOP voting power.


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