Williams Foos, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, registered to vote in Orange County in 2012 and voted in the presidential election that year.
But when he showed his Pennsylvania license at an early voting site in this year’s primary, he had to cast a provisional ballot. His vote may not count.
In the state’s first use of the voter ID law, some college students’ ballots may end up filling the discard piles. As of Friday, 717 people had cast provisional ballots because they didn’t have acceptable photo identification. Four of the five counties with the highest concentrations of provisional ballots from voters without approved ID were Durham, Orange, Watauga and Wake, where those voters had home addresses on or near campuses.
Robeson County was the fifth. Robeson is home of UNC Pembroke, but the county’s elections director couldn’t say why it landed in the top tier of counties with voter ID questions.
Durham and Orange were the leaders, by far. Each county had more than 100 voters without acceptable photo ID.
This primary season, voters were confronted with a complex mix of familiar practices, new requirements and choices that, for some, turned voting into a choose-a-path adventure.
Foos said he got a ballot, but precinct workers seemed confused about how to handle it.
“It was weird,” he said. “I left wondering if my vote would be counted or not.”
The state’s voter ID law is still being argued in federal court, with opponents claiming it suppresses minority and youth voting. In addition to requiring photo identification, the law restricted the early voting period and eliminated preregistration of teenagers before their 18th birthdays.
It also gets rid of same-day registration during early voting and disallows ballots cast by people outside their assigned precincts, but those two established practices are allowed for this year’s primary while the lawsuit is active.
Legislators, who said the ID law was needed to guard against voter fraud, excluded student ID cards as acceptable identification. A state House bill in 2013 would have recognized IDs from public universities, but it was negated by a more stringent version from the state Senate.
While opponents were suing over the law, legislators last year loosened the ID requirements by allowing voters to claim a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an acceptable voter ID. But college IDs stayed off the accepted list.
The League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and five female voters filed a lawsuit now pending in state court that contends the state cannot add ID as a voting requirement without a constitutional amendment.
A federal trial over the election law, that includes the ID requirement and other changes, ended last month. The NAACP, the U.S. Department of Justice and other challengers contend that the voter ID requirement will have a disproportionate impact on African-American, Hispanic and young voters.
Ruby McClellan, a UNC-Chapel Hill freshman, registered to vote in November. She has a New York license, so she cast a provisional ballot last Saturday. At the same time, other students with out-of-state licenses were able to register on site and vote without the same ID questions. Out-of-state licenses are acceptable when voters register within 90 days of an election.
McClellan said an elections worker told her she could not vote because she didn’t have valid identification. She asked why she wasn’t offered a provisional ballot.
“He was really annoyed,” McClellan said, but she eventually cast a provisional ballot.
“If you can prove that I’m a registered voter on your computer, why can I not vote?” she said. “I’m bummed that my first time getting to vote I don’t even know if my vote counts until 10 days after the election.”
Under the rules, everyone should be offered a ballot, said Tracy Reams, Orange County elections director.
Ballots cast provisionally are set aside and checked by local elections staff to resolve questions about registration, to confirm that voters cast the correct partisan ballot if they are registered with a party, and to see if they presented acceptable ID or offered reasons why they didn’t. The local board of elections votes whether to accept those ballots based on staff recommendations.
The law’s list of reasonable impediments includes: lack of transportation, disability or illness, lack of a birth certificate or other documents needed to obtain photo identification, a lost or stolen ID, work schedule, family responsibilities, photo ID applied for but not received, and “other.” A voter checking “other” must describe the impediment, but can say that state or federal law prohibits listing it.
As of Thursday, 488,222 people had cast ballots, 7.5 percent of the state’s 6.5 million registered voters. Early voting is heavier this year than it was at the same time four years ago.
Until the mail-in absentee ballot deadline last Tuesday, people without acceptable ID who showed up to vote were offered the option of applying for a mail-in absentee ballot, which does not require photo identification. They also could cast provisional ballots.
People without IDs also could vote provisionally while filling out the “reasonable impediment” form, which asks voters why they could not get an ID.
“It’s like the maze is getting more complex, and meanwhile, the real justification for the whole thing is really so thin, you wonder why we really have to go through this confusion,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights organization that opposes the ID law.
Josh Lawson, general counsel to the State Board of Elections, said the option to apply for a mail-in absentee ballot confused some who showed up at early polling sites without IDs. They thought the elections worker was trying to get out of offering them provisional ballots, he said.
As of Friday, 2,153 provisional ballots were cast, 717 because the voter did not have proper ID. That’s a fraction of 1 percent of people who had voted.
There’s no way to say whether patterns established during early voting will continue on primary day, or this fall in the general election, Lawson said.
“We’re not jumping to any conclusions,” he said.
Impediments in Durham
Of the 717 ballots cast by voters without ID, 310 included reasonable impediment forms, and 126 of those forms were filed in Durham. Watauga was next at 25, and Robeson had 19. For counties reporting voters with problems getting ID, most had impediment form filers in the single digits.
Michael Perry, Durham elections director, said he suspects students in Durham are using the “reasonable impediment” route to get around the photo ID requirement.
He bases that suspicion on a question he was asked during a voter education forum at Duke University on whether the inability to get to the DMV would count as a reasonable impediment.
“I can’t prove it, but that’s what I believe is happening,” he said.
There’s no way to invalidate those claims, Perry said, so those votes will count.
Students have a right to vote where they attend college, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979.
But Francis De Luca, president of the conservative policy and polling group Civitas Institute, said out-of-state college students should get North Carolina licenses if they want to vote here.
Students are not being disenfranchised, he said; they can get acceptable licenses.
“They are complaining that they don’t want to give up their out-of-state licenses,” De Luca said, “yet they want to tell you and I what laws to follow.”
The federal judge can rule at any time. The loser will likely appeal to the circuit court.
The state judge put action on that lawsuit on hold so all could see what happened during the primary.
What voters need to know
Early voting has ended. Here’s what you need to know if you want to vote in Tuesday’s primary:
▪ Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
▪ If you don’t know where to vote, or what’s on your ballot, go to nando.com/wherevote.
▪ You’ll need to meet the requirements of North Carolina’s voter ID law.
▪ Voters who are 17 may vote in any partisan or nonpartisan primary contests, as long as they are registered and will be 18 by the Nov. 8 general election.
▪ Same-day registration is not an option on election day.
You may present any of these acceptable photo IDs: A North Carolina driver’s license, learner’s permit or provisional license (these can be expired up to four years); a state identification card issued by the Division of Motor Vehicles; a veteran’s identification card issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; a U.S. military identification card; an unexpired U.S. passport; a tribal enrollment card; an out-of-state driver’s license (as long as you registered within 90 days of the election). Voters 70 and older can present an expired form of acceptable ID as long as it expired after their 70th birthday.
If you have no photo ID: You can still vote using a provisional ballot. If you were not able to obtain an acceptable ID, you’ll be asked to sign a form stating why. In that case, you must also present a current voter registration card, or a form of ID with name and address, such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck, or give the last four digits of your Social Security number and birth date. No other action will be required from you, but local elections boards will verify the information on the declaration form before counting your vote.
Have it, but didn’t bring it? You can still vote using a provisional ballot, but you will have to return to the local board of elections and show the ID to get your ballot counted. You will be given a deadline.
Voter’s guide: Find out more about the candidates and more useful information for voters with our digital voter guide at nando.com/2016primaryguide.