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Here’s a microscopic look at photo ID law’s impact in NC

Early voting in the University area, at the Old Pier One in University City.
Erin Keever
Early voting in the University area, at the Old Pier One in University City.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Early voting is underway for the March 5 primary — the biggest election North Carolina has held under the state’s photo ID law.

To get an idea of the impact of photo ID, Inside Politics is looking at the November 2023 election, which was mostly city and town contests across the state. A photo ID was also required for voters in that election, sort of a dry run for the much bigger contests this year.

Mecklenburg County is a particularly good place to take a deep dive.

The state’s second-largest county had elections for the city of Charlotte and the six towns. The School Board was also on the ballot, which meant the entire county voted. Turnout wasn’t particularly high — 15.5% — but 120,662 people cast ballots.

That’s a decent sample size.

Here is the breakdown of who voted in that election, by race and ethnicity:

  • White: 77,722 (64.8%)
  • Black: 33,587 (28%)
  • Hispanic: 2,416 (2%)
  • Asian: 1,652 (1.4%)

And by party:

  • Democratic: 55,565 (46.3%)
  • Unaffiliated: 39,214 (32.7%)
  • Republican: 25,229 (21%)

Now let’s look at who cast a provisional ballot because they didn’t have a photo ID when they came to the polling place, broken down by race:

  • White: 76 provisional ballots
  • Black: 42 provisional ballots
  • Hispanic: 2 provisional ballots
  • Asian: 2 provisional ballots

Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson said that if a voter came to the polling place without an ID, they were given a “Photo ID exception form.” A voter could check several boxes to explain not having an ID, such as a lack of transportation, disability, or the photo ID has been lost or misplaced.
So long as they checked a box, it would take a unanimous vote by the county elections board to deny that ballot, Dickerson said. That would mean the three Democratic and two Republican board members would have to agree.

Some people, however, voted by provisional ballot and did not properly complete the form, Dickerson said. Those people would have needed to return to the elections board before canvassing and show a photo ID for their vote to count.

(The State Board of Elections database shows that 29 people in Mecklenburg filled out “Photo ID exception forms," but their ballots weren’t counted. It’s unclear why. We will discuss that more later on.)

Here are the number of people without photo ID whose provisional ballots were not counted:

  • Democratic: 42
  • Unaffiliated: 22
  • Republican: 12
  • White: 45
  • Black: 26
  • Hispanic: 0
  • Asian: 0

Let’s look at the rate of disqualified ballots two different ways.

Glass half full

No Hispanic voter in Mecklenburg who showed up to the polls was denied the right to cast a ballot because of photo ID. Same for Asian voters.

(In fact, for the entire state — out of 515,000 ballots cast — only three Hispanic voters’ ballots didn’t count because of photo ID. Only two Asians’ ballots weren’t counted.)

Among white voters in Mecklenburg, about .0058% of voters were denied because of photo ID. Among Black voters, it was .0077%.

If two additional white voters’ ballots didn’t count — and five additional Black voters’ did — there would have been no disparity.

Now let’s look at the statistics in a different way.

Glass half empty

Take those same stats and switch them from percentage to a rate.

One of every 1,728 white voters in Mecklenburg had their ballot rejected because of photo ID.

One of every 1,293 Black voters had their ballot rejected because of photo ID.

That means that in Mecklenburg, a Black voter was about 30% more likely to have their ballot not count because of a problem with photo ID.

That sounds a bit more grim, even if the overall number of rejected ballots is small.

(The disparity shrinks when examined by political parties. One of every 1,324 Democrats had their vote rejected because of photo ID, while, among Republicans, one in 1,148 were rejected.)

While the number of rejected ballots may be small, there are still questions as to why anyone should have had their ballot denied because they didn’t have a photo ID — especially when in-person voter fraud has been shown to be extremely, extremely rare. The state Board of Elections’ website even says “County boards of elections must count provisional ballots with properly completed ID Exception Forms.”

There are other questions:

As the voter pool expands to include more marginal voters, will the percentage of voters without photo ID increase?

Will some people not bother to vote because they don’t have an ID or are confused about which one they are supposed to have?

If you extrapolate Mecklenburg’s rejected ballot rate over the entire state for a high-turnout presidential election, it suggests as many as 4,000 ballots could be rejected.

That’s enough to tilt a very close race, like the 2020 state Supreme Court race that Paul Newby won by 401 votes over Cheri Beasley.

Inconsistent standards?

In January, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Democracy N.C. and Common Cause N.C., told the N.C. Board of Elections they thought the photo ID rules were being applied unevenly across the state.

They said Guilford County Board members used “speculation and personal opinion” to challenge ID exception forms; they said poll workers in Montgomery and Durham counties “inconsistently” informed voters about the form; and they questioned why Mecklenburg rejected ballots from those 30 voters who had filled out an ID exception form.

It asked that the state “clarify its own standards on ID Exception forms, making explicit the limits on a county board’s ability to scrutinize these forms and further clarifying the very specific and very narrow grounds under which a ballot may be rejected for lack of voter photo ID under the law.”

What the future holds

WRAL reported last week that N.C.House Speaker Tim Moore believes the “reasonable impediment” allowance on the photo ID exception form creates too many loopholes for people to vote without IDs.

He told the TV station: “I think the affidavit where you can simply attest that you don't have it is silly. It's pointless. You ought to have an ID to vote. And, I think that we ought to make that abundantly clear.”

He said the House may consider new “election integrity” legislation this year, though GOP Senate leader Phil Berger was less enthusiastic.

There is also what may be the final legal battle over photo ID.

While the state Supreme Court ruled last year that photo ID is constitutional, a separate federal trial is set to begin in early May.

The federal lawsuit brought by the NAACP alleges that the ID law violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating disproportionately against Black and Latino voters.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.