In a matter of weeks, thousands of North Carolina voters will head to the polls unaware of what they’ll need to vote – and election officials will be hard-pressed to help them.
Ironically, conservative Republicans who promoted voting changes could suffer the most. The excitement of the Republican presidential primary will motivate new voters to show up, but newbies are the most likely not to have followed the twists and turns of election rule changes.
Will they be helped or frustrated at the polls? At this point, it’s up to Gov. Pat McCrory. Here’s why.
The new law cuts out safety-net provisions for new voters and dumps a load of confusing regulations on poll workers. That combination is making it hard for election officials to do their jobs. The evidence from the 2014 election is disturbing:
▪ Dr. Martha Kropf at UNC-Charlotte analyzed exit surveys from thousands of voters across the state and found that poll officials were not following the simplest of the new rules: Ask each voter, “Do you have one of the photo IDs that will be required to vote in 2016?” Kropf found that nearly half (48 percent) of the voters were not asked whether they had the proper identification.
▪ An analysis by Democracy NC of provisional ballots and reports from poll monitors found that at least 30,000 voters were disenfranchised in 2014 because the new law repealed two safety-net provisions: same-day registration during early voting and out-of-precinct voting on Election Day.
▪ A majority of the directors of county boards of elections interviewed by the League of Women Voters and Democracy NC said the experience of 2014 and complexity of the photo ID law made them worry whether they could recruit or fully train enough poll workers to handle the variety of problems they expect at the polls this year.
A simple question
We sympathize with the election officials’ concerns. It’s difficult to get poll workers to consistently deliver a simple question to voters. It’s even harder to uniformly administer a law when provisions that helped voters are eliminated and inconsistent regulations are added.
It turns out DMV examiners also have trouble uniformly administering the new law. They were supposed to provide free IDs, but qualified voters received different treatment depending on which DMV office they visited. As a result, the General Assembly had to add a complex new procedure for voters showing up at the polls without an “acceptable” ID.
The new procedure is called the “reasonable impediment exception.” Whether it works depends heavily on poll-worker training and voter education, which are both underfinanced and behind schedule. We’re at risk of a major meltdown at the polls in March.
Back to Square One
Gov. Pat McCrory’s “common sense” requirement for voters to “show ID” has become a dangerous farce. First, our lawmakers made the list of acceptable IDs so strict it threatened to disenfranchise from 100,000 to 300,000 citizens. Then, the “fix” to help those without IDs became so bureaucratic it couldn’t work. Now, the new procedure essentially lets any voter escape the ID requirement if he goes through the hassle of filling out forms.
We’re back to the original way we protected against fraud: If you lie when you sign in identifying yourself, it’s a felony.
If poll workers can’t administer this new procedure fairly, the whole law is in serious jeopardy of being ruled unconstitutional.
To protect his claim that the ID law is sensible – and to protect our right to vote – McCrory needs to act swiftly. He must release emergency financial support to election officials to:
▪ Educate more voters with a clear message: Take your ID, but if you don’t have one, go anyway. Media outlets are mistakenly saying voters must have a photo ID to vote, and coverage of a trial about the ID rules makes everything even more confusing.
▪ Hire and thoroughly train more workers for North Carolina’s 3,000 voting sites. Add greeters to help voters before they wait in line 45 minutes only to learn they’re at the wrong poll or must go to the help desk for “the right forms.” Add more workers to staff help desks and serve curbside voters.
McCrory and legislative leaders must deliver on their promise that the new election laws will not harm honest voters. Money spent now could save them from embarrassment and save thousands of voters from senseless troubles.
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, which sponsors a website (NCVoter.org) to help voters.