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Lost in the Storm? A Proposed Voter ID Amendment Comes to North Carolina

“It was sad and engrossing and scary all at once,” said Avra Janz of following Hurricane Florence from a distance.

Janz is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about two and a half hours from her coastal hometown of Wilmington. A small port city near North Carolina’s southeastern corner, Wilmington is a place where families come for vacations by the shore and school children take field trips to see the WWII battleship or the aquarium at nearby Fort Fisher. But in September, Hurricane Florence first made windfall right near Wilmington, forcing its inhabitants to evacuate and students like Janz to follow the news from the coast anxiously.

During one of the first days of the storm, Janz met up with a group of other students from Wilmington in Durham, one of Chapel Hill’s neighboring cities in central North Carolina. In an interview with The Politic, Janz described worrying about the people she knew who had stayed in Wilmington while she and her friends watched television coverage of the severe damage in their hometown.

Florence would eventually make its way across much of North Carolina to reach Chapel Hill and Durham, deluging UNC’s leafy campus and Durham’s historic American Tobacco district and forcing local schools to close. As the storm slowly moved over the state for several days in mid-September, Florence unleashed intense rain and wind that left hundreds of miles of roads and highways flooded and displayed thousands of residents, with some areas issuing mandatory evacuations. In mid-October, the General Assembly approved 850 million dollars for relief.

But the storm first hit North Carolina at the coast, battering areas such as Wilmington and towns further inland in North Carolina’s eastern Coastal Plain the hardest.

When Janz went home for fall break in mid-October, she found piles of tree branches and other debris along the roads throughout town. “A few of the piles are massive, to the point where they obscure the houses behind them,” she said.

Yet in spite of Florence, as in the rest of the nation, the midterms have come to North Carolina in full force. North Carolina’s early voting period began on October 17, and more than half of the North Carolinians who will vote this election are expected to have cast their ballots before election day on November 6.

On the ballot this year are several measures that could have lasting impacts on voting access in the state. Among the six constitutional amendments voters are asked to vote for or against on their ballots is an amendment “to require voters to provide photo identification before voting in person.” North Carolina has already witnessed one voter ID law, which passed in 2013 and was later overturned by a federal court of appeals.

The reemergence of the issue has voting rights activists worried, as many believe that a return to voter ID requirements would threaten North Carolinians’ access to the ballot and disproportionately affect low-income and minority voters. But campaigners advocating against the amendment are facing both Florence’s effects and a lack of voter awareness as they attempt to drive up voter engagement. These challenges may be precluding the amendment from receiving the scrutiny from voters that it deserves.

“We’re concerned that people in this state have had an experience dealing with a strict photo ID requirement, it’s not a good experience, and it’s one that we think harms voters and to begin with isn’t needed,” said Tomas Lopez (LAW ’10) in an interview with The Politic. Lopez is the Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan organization that is one of several groups campaigning against the voter ID amendment this fall.

Prior to 2013, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were covered under the section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting access to preclear proposed changes to their voting laws with the Justice Department or federal district court in D.C. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, however, the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance, effectively removing all jurisdictions from the Act’s preclearance requirements.  

Three weeks later, the North Carolina legislature, or General Assembly, passed a sweeping law that eliminated a week of early voting, discounted ballots cast in the wrong precinct, and required specific forms of photo ID to vote in person. The law was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, with the court saying that it had targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Members of the General Assembly have argued that a voter ID requirement is a reasonable measure to prevent voter fraud. Critics of such laws, however, say that they can restrict people’s ability to vote.

“When I look at the proposed voter ID amendment, what I see is something that would make the state an extreme outlier, since so few other states have any kind of ID requirement in their constitutions, and then also something that we know has already led the state on a troubled path,” said Lopez.

He also pointed out how little information voters currently have about what the implementation of the amendment would look like. The proposed amendment leaves the specific requirements up to companion legislation that the General Assembly only plans to write after the election, should the amendment pass.  

The question of what enabling legislation would look like, Lopez said, is of “great concern, because they’ve written this amendment in a way where it says, ‘voters shall show photo ID in order to vote.’ Someone may look at that and say ‘Well, I have a photo ID, this is fine,’ but what we know is that in practice they have to come back and define what photo ID means, and the last time that the state had a photo ID requirement it was a really narrowly drawn list.”

The 2013 voter ID law allowed voters to present driver’s licenses and certain other photo IDs issued by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), passports, military IDs, certain tribal enrollment IDs, and DMV IDs from other states only in specific circumstances. Student IDs and IDs from government public assistance programs were not allowed, and according to the Fourth Circuit, lawmakers who authored the law deliberately excluded these IDs and others after finding evidence that African-American voters were more likely to hold them. Research on voting ID laws in several different states has indicated that voter turnout disparities between minority and white voters are larger in states with photo ID requirements.

“Part of what has always made voter ID provocative is that there are a number of reasonable scenarios where people who would be eligible to vote might not have a valid picture ID,” said Courtney Crowder, a political consultant in Raleigh who served on multiple Democratic campaigns in North Carolina prior to opening his own firm.

Crowder says that he thinks North Carolina’s lawmakers attempt measures like these “because there are some that truly, fundamentally believe that everybody should not have the opportunity to vote,” he said. “And what we have are still people who have a view that, you know, if you’re not educated in a way or support things the way that they do, then your access to that ballot ought to be challenged at every turn, and we just don’t share that view.”

Though there is no voter ID requirement this election cycle, some in North Carolina are concerned that voters in the southeastern part of the state, the area that was especially hard hit by Florence, will face difficulties voting. This could prevent many people who would be affected by the amendment’s implementation from having a say in whether or not it should pass.

“I think it’ll be harder for people get to the polls because I personally know that at least some people in my neighborhood had their cars destroyed by the hurricane,” said Janz. In the days after Hurricane Florence, flooding and fallen trees cut off travel in and out of Wilmington, preventing many evacuees from returning for several days. Janz’s parents had left to stay with family in Philadelphia during the storm and it was over a week before they could return home.

Even in cases where people do have access to cars or services offering rides to the polls, “I’m sure that not too many people would be willing to drive in Wilmington where there’s been a lot of damage to the roads and things like that,” said Janz.

“So, it might be more difficult for people to vote, and in general if people are working on repairing their homes then I’m not sure that taking a lot of time out of your day to vote would be the best individual choice for them at this time,” said Janz, who also noted that trees have fallen on several houses in her neighborhood, including on the home of a close family friend.

Even across coastal parts of the state, however, the damage from Florence has not been uniform. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate that there will be more attention on the amendment in places that were less heavily impacted.

In an interview with The Politic, Morty Gaskill, a resident of Ocracoke Island in eastern North Carolina, indicated that Ocracoke was fortunate in how little it was impacted by the storm. “There really wasn’t a whole lot of damage to Ocracoke per se, but the threat of the storm and damage to elsewhere sort of shut down the tourism and the fishing industries for about probably two and a half weeks before things started to get back to normal,” he said.

Tourism and fishing are the two main industries on Ocracoke, where the population varies with the seasons and swells during the summer. Gaskill’s family has lived on Ocracoke for generations, and today Gaskill farms clam beds and fishes using pound nets in the Pamlico Sound off of the island’s eastern coast much as other members of his family have before him. His catch either ends up at Ocracoke Seafood Company’s retail store, where it is bought by other residents or tourists, or makes its way further north along the coast to be bought by an international wholesaler.  

Gaskill’s busiest time of year stretches from mid-September to the end of November, and though he evacuated to Raleigh during the storm and lost about two weeks of fishing as a result, Florence hit early enough in the fall fishing season that the damage wasn’t detrimental. “If it had come about two weeks later it could have been a real mess,” he said.

Local concerns over other issues may easily eclipse the voter ID amendment in many voters’ minds this election cycle, a challenge that campaigners against the amendment, such as members of Democracy NC, are running up against before the election.

When I talked to him in early October, Lopez said that the number of voters who are unaware of the proposed amendments will narrow as election day approaches, but that “there is always a challenge to remind voters about what exactly is on their ballot, especially when it comes to ballot measures like this.

“There are a lot of things that are competing for people’s attention,” he said, “And that’s part of what we’re trying to do. And we’re also trying to cut through the noise and also explain, these amendments look like they’re one thing, but they’re actually something else.”

Awareness and interest will also vary across the state. “Really I think a lot of the focus is on state legislature races this time around, being no gubernatorial election or senate election this year, that’s pretty much the big target,” said Gaskill when asked about voter interest in Ocracoke. He also pointed out how close state legislature elections have been in his eastern North Carolina district in recent years.

Ocracoke is one of the thin barrier islands that make up the North Carolina Outer Banks. It is less than ten square miles, but much of the island has been designated national seashore. As a result, Ocracoke can boast several miles of undeveloped, wild seashore that other North Carolina beaches, such as those near Wilmington, don’t have.

It is also found at the very southern tip of North Carolina’s old first senate district (new statewide districts are being used this election cycle, since the old ones were ruled unconstitutional in 2017). Democrat Marc Basnight represented the first district in the state senate from 1984 until 2011, serving as Senate president pro tempore for 18 years and until his resignation in 2011.

That year, Republicans gained control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time since the late nineteenth century. Since then, Ocracoke’s representatives have been Republicans who have won by “normally only about a few hundred votes out of about eight to ten thousand cast in these districts,” said Gaskill.

Following the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2011 came a number of changes to voting that were later challenged in court, including the previous voter ID law. Redistricting has also led to controversy; the current House map was drawn in 2016 by the majority-Republican legislature after a federal court ruled that the map they had drawn in 2011 was racially gerrymandered and ordered it redrawn. But in January (and again in August after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal) a panel from the Fourth Circuit ruled the 2016 map unconstitutional. Due to the proximity of the November election, however, the court allowed North Carolina to use the old districts in the midterms this year.

As a result, this election, North Carolinians are voting for representatives to the U.S. House from districts that have been ruled unconstitutional, and on an amendment at the state level that could have profound impacts on voting in the state.

Janz said that she believes the voter ID amendment could be dangerous for the future of democracy in North Carolina. She thinks getting an ID in North Carolina can already be challenging for many people, especially those who work multiple jobs or jobs with long or odd hours. “I do have the luxury of being able to spend, you know, five hours in a line at a DMV if I need to because I’m just a student,” she said, “but I don’t think that a lot of people in North Carolina do have that luxury.”

Janz is also concerned that there isn’t enough awareness of the proposed amendments, including the one regarding voter IDs. “Even some of my friends who are very informed and read the news every day don’t really see as much North Carolina news and so they don’t know about the meaning of these amendments,” she said. “Especially because it’s unclear what the amendments really do because the descriptions [on the ballot] are sometimes misleading, I think it will be very difficult for voters to make an informed decision about what will happen in North Carolina.”

Gaskill said that even though there is some interest in state legislature races among Ocracoke residents, he’s heard very little discussion about the amendments. “I pretty much read a briefer … that convinced me to just vote no for all of them and that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve read about the amendments,” he said. “[R]eally, from what I’ve gathered, most people are just paying attention to what’s going on in D.C. and not this, which is how we get in bad situations such as we are in, not paying attention to state and local races.”

***

On the Friday afternoon of fall break, I drove up to an early voting site with my parents to cast my ballot. The pathway into the indoor basketball court at Optimist Park was lined with campaign signs displaying the names of local candidates or urging me to vote YES for school bonds, making their brief final pitches. There were a few other voters ambling in, but I didn’t have to wait long to give my name and address to a poll worker who verified my registration in the system. After picking up my ballot at another table, I had my turn in one of the plastic booths to mark my chosen candidates and make a decision on the amendments.

The whole process couldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes. But it won’t be until after election day that we’ll know how different that process may look the next time an election comes to North Carolina—or how many of the state’s people will have voted in the race that decides it.