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Unclear Path Forward For Photo ID In NC 2020 Elections

Erik (HASH) Hersman

North Carolina Republican legislators insisted that a photo ID provision be included in order to pass a badly needed bill to adjust some election laws and to fund additional election costs during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The bill passed almost unanimously, with a handful of Democrats opposing the bill due to the “poison pill,” photo ID provision.

Democrats such as Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, who was one of the bill’s sponsors, reasoned that the photo ID provision was for the time being a moot point. After all, the photo ID law is currently blocked by state and federal courts.

But now Republicans in the General Assembly, who are also defendants in the litigation challenging photo ID, have used the provision in the new lawto ask a state court to lift the injunction and allow the photo ID requirement to go into effect in November. 

So far, they have not made a similar request in the federal court case. Both courts would need to drop the injunction for the photo ID requirements to go into effect for the fall. 

It is not clear whether the request to lift the injunction in state court is performance politics or the Republican lawmakers harbor real hope for photo ID to go into effect for November.

If they are serious, time is running out. 

Plaintiffs in the state case have until July 24, less than two weeks, to respond. The state court would take some unknowable amount of time after that to make its decision. Then, the federal courts would have to be convinced to lift the injunction in short order, too. 

Both courts found that the photo ID law as written would disproportionately harm people of color by hampering their access to the ballot. Thirty-five other states have photo ID laws in effect for 2020. 

Significant obstacles exist to putting photo ID rules in place on such short notice, made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Court documents, submitted by the state in April, describe how challenging it would be to put a new law into place, even with those additional months for preparation. 

A Shortened Timeline

County boards of election would now have seven weeks to figure out the new photo ID rules and get their materials printed before sending absentee by mail ballots out on Sept. 4.

“Obviously, it would be a big challenge to get the word out to, gosh, implement the by-mail provisions of photo ID,” said Derek Bowens, elections director for Durham County. “It would be challenging and it would be confusing.”

Ballot envelopes would need to be redesigned again, and any court ruling would need to be translated into guidance from the state Board of Elections.

Counties, which are already seeing a historic demand for absentee-by-mail ballots, would have less time to prepare the ballots that have already been requested.

Voters would need to be educated on the new process, and many would need to find a way to get an acceptable form of identification in the middle of a pandemic.

In favor of photo ID proponent arguments, counties have already completed some preparations from before the law was blocked in the courts. 

When the photo ID requirement — passed as an amendment to the state constitution that required additional legislation to put into practice — the state bought the necessary equipment and distributed it to county boards of election.

Many costs associated with putting the photo ID law into effect are already allocated. 

Preparing Precinct Officials

Counties also have some training materials for teaching precinct officials how to deal with photo IDs, but that’s not part of the current plan. 

“Obviously, you’re talking of changing your training completely,” said Michael Dickerson, director for the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections. 

Counties will train their general election precinct officials in August or September. This year, with responses to COVID-19 already dominating much of the training, preparing for photo ID implementation would add another layer. 

For one, requiring photo identification would extend the check-in process, which could make wait times longer. Dickerson said he would likely hire more precinct officials to help keep lines moving. 

Several counties in Western North Carolina that conducted a second primary for a Republican congressional nomination last month reported having the minimum possible number of precinct officials to carry off the elections, as election workers tend to be older and therefore warier of increased risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

Dickerson said his county is in good shape for having enough workers and credited the state board’s Democracy Heroes program recruiting precinct officials. 

Election directors in smaller counties did not think the photo ID provision would force them to hire more precinct officials.

Jeff Storey, elections director for Transylvania County, is more concerned about how his poll workers could enforce photo ID rules during a pandemic. 

“I guess my biggest question would be: How would you identify someone who’s ready to mask in the COVID environment?” Storey said. “So there’ll be procedural questions.”

Absentee-By-Mail Ballots And Photo ID

North Carolina is seeing a significant increase in requests for by-mail voting, technically called absentee-by-mail (voting early in-person is also considered “absentee voting”). 

Adding photo ID into the mix would complicate the absentee-by-mail process.

First, a line in the photo ID law also requires identification upon the request for a ballot. Counties have already received almost 50,000 requests that did not meet photo ID requirements. What would happen to those requests should the law be put in place remains unclear. 

Next, vote-by-mail already sees a significant number of ballot rejections. Many voters do not complete the ballot envelope correctly, possibly due to confusing instructions or poor design, and many more simply do not return their ballots to election offices on time. 

“There’s already a lot of instructions,” Bowens said.

“There’s a lot of process with absentee-by-mail as it is. When you add photo ID to it, it’s obviously more instructions and more detail that the voter has to meticulously analyze before returning a ballot.”

Requiring photo ID for fall elections in North Carolina would also add an administrative burden on county election offices, at a time when they are already seeing a substantial increase in absentee-by-mail ballot requests and dealing with a pandemic. 

“If you had to add the component of verifying … it definitely can make the process more time-consuming and challenging,” Bowens said.

He was specifically concerned about the process of solving disputed cases, when a voter would need to show a photo ID to the board of elections, much as they would need to do for some provisional ballots. 

Voting rights groups have widely opposed the photo identification requirement as an additional and unnecessary barrier to voting. So far, courts have agreed regarding the photo ID measures passed in North Carolina but have signed off on those in some other states. 

Most of the conversation from these groups has focused on the difficulty of voters accessing eligible IDs. But, as Tomas Lopez, director of the voting rights group Democracy NC, points out, getting the ID is just the first step. Then the voters and the counties will need to follow the rest of the law’s requirements before a ballot is counted. 

“Here’s one more thing you have to get right,” Lopez said. “So it’s both of those. It’s both the ID itself and the barrier that ID poses. And then one more rule one more step.” 

Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.