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Poll workers, voters adapting to state's photo ID requirement

Poll worker training for 2024 at the Wake County Board of Elections, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. Early in-person voting for the March primaries starts on Thursday, Feb. 15.
Rusty Jacobs
Poll worker training for 2024 at the Wake County Board of Elections, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. Early in-person voting for the March primaries starts on Thursday, Feb. 15.

Early in-person voting starts Thursday. For many North Carolina voters it will be the first time they cast a ballot under a photo ID law drafted in 2018.

O'Dell Justin Hill is a 21-year-old college student from Durham. He recently registered to vote in his home county through the DMV. Hill already had a North Carolina Driver's License, one of the assorted IDs accepted for voting in the state - but just felt more comfortable getting a free ID issued by the county Board of Elections.

"So with that voter ID you have proof itself to say you can vote."

That is something Durham County Elections Director Derek Bowens has seen before--a misguided belief among voters that they must get a Board-issued ID.

"You know, I had one gentleman come in and say 'Yeah, I've got all of these IDs are these acceptable?' And I said, 'Yes sir, you've got plenty that are acceptable.' 'Well, I wanna get the free one you have too because I don't want any problems when I get to the polling place.'"

This happened in last year's municipal elections when the ID law took effect, requiring photo IDs for casting in-person and absentee ballots.

The mostly Republican-backed 2018 law was blocked after a state court found it would have a disparate impact on Black voters who were less likely to have the requisite forms of ID. That finding was affirmed by the state Supreme Court when Democrats on the bench held a majority.

But GOP victories in the 2022 primaries gave Republicans a majority on the court. The new court lifted the injunction and reinstated the ID requirement. The thing that seems to be lost on many voters, according to local elections directors I interviewed, is the wide variety of photo IDs that are accepted.

"We've explained to the senior citizens if you had an ID at the age of 65 that was unexpired when you were 65, but is now expired, you can use that ID."

Jane Rae Fawcett is Lee County's elections director. And like other directors across the state she has tried to get the word out about the voter ID rules, issuing IDs at the local senior center and community events. The list of acceptable forms of photo ID includes U-S passports, college student IDs approved by the State Board of Elections, tribal enrollment cards, public school employee IDs approved by the state elections board, and photo ID cards issued by federal and state public assistance programs.

"It's a pretty extensive list but the big thing is if someone wants a photo ID from our office we're going to be accommodating for that."

Olivia McCall is the elections director in Wake County. She hasn't seen a flood of voters seeking IDs but notes the law just went into effect before last year's municipal elections -- contests limited to certain towns and cities and a relatively small pool of voters.

"In 2024, this is the first time we're having a full-blown, 212 precincts open, and I'm sure we're going to see a higher turnout of people wanting to get a photo ID to be prepared."

As State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell notes, registered voters who lack proper ID can still cast a provisional ballot under certain exceptions.

"Religious reasons or maybe you didn't have proper transportation to go get an ID or we could be faced with a natural disaster that could impact some folks."

That provisional ballot will be counted unless a local elections board unanimously finds the voter's exception form to be false. And if a person shows up at an early voting site or on Election Day without proper ID and doesn't fall into one of the exception categories, they, too, can cast a provisional ballot. But they would have to return to their local elections office prior to the county canvass and present a valid ID.

Jan Drabik will be working the polls for the first time in Wake County this year.

"Well, I'll tell you, it's a lot of material they're covering in these training classes. It's gonna be a challenge to keep it all straight."

Volunteers like Drabik will be checking in voters and looking for a reasonable resemblance between the voter and the photo on their ID, taking into account changes in appearance over time. Any challenges to the resemblance would need to be reviewed by a polling place's bipartisan group of precinct judges--and can only be upheld unanimously. Even then a voter with a challenged ID could cast a provisional ballot.