During this past North Carolina primary election, voters experienced the state’s new voter ID laws, which have been called some of the strictest and most limiting voter ID laws since the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This past primary election I watched as the new laws on voter identification played out, and to little surprise, the laws caused mass confusion and upsetting disenfranchisement.
I am a registered voter in North Carolina, but being from Massachusetts I have a Massachusetts-issued driver’s license. But having been registered in North Carolina for over 90 days, I was required to obtain a North Carolina-issued ID card, according to the new law. Living away from home, however, I lack my birth certificate and passport. So with just my Massachusetts ID, Wake Forest ID, proof of residence at Wake Forest, and my social security number I went over to my local NC DMV.
Upon entering the DMV I was greeted by one employee, who was nothing less than confused by my request for an in-state ID. If I switch to an NC ID I won’t be able to use it to drive, the man explained. Of course I understood that much—I only wanted an ID card to vote, not to replace my driver’s license. The man consulted a colleague of his, who proceeded to inform me that voter ID’s were out of their jurisdiction. According to this second employee, I needed to consult the State Board of Elections. The first man then gave me a phone number to call for the board of elections. I protested that if I were to call the board of elections, I would only be told to get an ID, which of course would need to be issued by the DMV, the department that was turning me away. After much back-and-forth between this man and me, he finally took my side and acknowledged that it was (obviously) in the DMV’s jurisdiction to issue me a North Carolina ID card.
Unfortunately, the man agreeing with me that I was in the right place only meant that we had to begin the even more confusing process of determining whether or not my several forms of identification and proof of residence fully met the law’s requirements—as far as he could understand and interpret the law. The man was unsure if my Wake ID and proof of residence counted towards my personal identification, date of birth, and proof of established residence, though I knew they absolutely worked. He also seemed to think that citing my social security number, rather than presenting an official card, was insufficient proof of citizenship and identity as well. Finally the man gave up and called in his supervisor. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought the two men worked in different states. Within a minute, the supervisor reviewed my documents and ID’s and instructed the first employee to “Get this man an ID.” I was fortunate enough to have the time, as well as a car, to get to the DMV. I was also fortunate enough to have known enough about the law to gather the necessary documents to prove my citizenship, identity, and age so the DMV could give me an ID. While I was able to protest and get my ID, I can’t help but wonder just how many other citizens were turned away from the DMV without the proper identification to vote.
While I am fortunate enough to have taken civics classes and have a thorough understanding of primary elections, voter registration, and the voter ID laws, I found on Election Day that a good many Americans simply aren’t so knowledgeable on those topics. With a fellow Wake the Voter, I was stationed for several hours outside a voting precinct in Winston-Salem. Rather than holding signs to support a particular candidate, we were there to support voters. Working for Democracy NC, we worked to protect the votes of others. We were trained in working with poll judges, taught the details of voter registration and ID laws, and were given a hotline number to reach a team of voting law experts and civil rights attorneys. Wearing our bright yellow shirts, we were approached by several voters turned away from the polls.
One key problem I found was a lack of understanding of registration by address. Several people approached me saying they had been told by their former polling station to come to my station, but the judge at my station instructed those same voters to return to the initial polling station. Normally this would just be frustrating, but when polls close at 7:30, and a voter gets turned away at 7 o’clock, the incompetence and misunderstanding of poll judges impedes on citizens’ rights to vote. I found that far too often voters had moved to a new home but were unaware of the need to update their registration information with their new residential address. These voters would then return to the same polling location they had always been to, but upon sharing that they changed their address, or showing an ID with an address in a separate precinct, they were told to go vote in their new precinct. At their new precinct, however, their name was not listed with the other registered voters, as their address had not been updated. Their name was listed as a registered voter at the first polling location, where they had been turned away. But without looking deep enough into the mater, the judges at each precinct simply sent the voters on their way.
I felt especially bad for one woman in particular. She had taken her brother to get curbside voting, as he was physically unable to enter the building after suffering from a devastating stroke just a few months earlier. The woman took her brother in to live with her, but his address had not been updated to list his residence as his sister’s home. When the woman took her brother to vote at her polling location, she was turned away, as her brother’s listed address was outside of that polling precinct. This woman was so distraught and could not think of any more options after, like so many other voters, she had been sent away from multiple polling locations.
All this difficulty, confusion, and restriction frustrates me, and I know it frustrates so many others. It is certainly counter-productive to our country’s and constitution’s ideals of democracy to pass laws that make voting such a difficult and strenuous process. When I say strenuous, not only do I mean tedious and timely, like my experience at the DMV, but also physically straining, as I experienced from one older woman walking on a cane due to severe back problems. After waiting in line for almost an hour between waiting to check in, the woman then had to wait to speak with another judge to review her registration, only to be sent to another precinct. The woman told me her back was hurting so much that she couldn’t even go to her proper polling station where her voter registration was listed.
While other countries extend democracy so far as to mandate their citizens to vote, our country has developed policies that limit our citizens’ voting rights. While we should certainly be protected from voter fraud—although it occurs so seldom and in such insignificant force—we should be even more protected from losing our rights to vote. If laws are so complex, confusing, and strict that not even our state officials can consistently understand and interpret them, how can we expect all of our citizens to understand the laws, let alone meet all the requirements to simply cast a vote? As is too often the case with politics and laws, fear drives our policies and legislation. In reality such policies do little to enhance safety or protection—of either ourselves or our votes—and do far more to limit our rights as citizens.