NC is preparing for its first elections under voter ID law. Is the Border Belt ready?

By Ben Rappaport

As North Carolina gears up for its first elections in which voters have to show photo identification, state and local officials are urging people to get IDs. 

But voters in poor, rural communities like those in the Border Belt face several barriers, including long travel times to county elections offices or the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. Without public transportation, some people don’t have a way to get there at all. 

“I think when folks that pass these laws — or reverse court decisions — (they) aren’t taking into account the realities for many folks, because they have an ID,” said Cynthia Wallace, co-founder and director of the New Rural Project. “And if you have it, it seems easy to get.” 

The voter ID requirement was enacted in April after the Republican-majority N.C. Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision that said the measure was unconstitutional. 

GOP lawmakers say requiring voters to show proof of their identity will help prevent voter fraud and improve confidence in elections. Critics say fears of fraud are overblown and not a widespread problem in the state.

Three percent of voters across the state didn’t have a driver’s license or state ID issued by the DMV in 2015, according to a report by the Budget & Tax Center at the North Carolina Justice Center. While the figure was higher in urban areas, some rural counties also exceeded the statewide rate. In Robeson County, 6 percent of voters didn’t have a DMV-issued ID, the report says. 

Black and Latinx voters were less likely to have ID, according to the report. In Columbus County, Black residents accounted for 32% of voters – but 54% of the electorate without a DMV-issued ID, data shows. 

A North Carolina’s driver’s license costs $5.50 a year. State-issued ID cards are available for free at DMVs and county boards of election. 

But when factoring travel and wait times at the DMV, lost wages and the cost of securing necessary documents, the estimated cost for getting a DMV-issued identification card exceeds $130 in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, according to the Budget & Tax Center report.  

Jackson Sailor Jones, associate director of Common Cause North Carolina, said voter ID laws create a “poll tax,” particularly for elderly and low-income residents and people of color. 

“Not only are rural counties less likely to have fulsome access to DMV sites and hours, but many rural communities across the state face the biggest financial challenges to overcome all sorts of barriers created by photo voter ID laws,” Jones said. 

‘Doing everything we can’

Some DMV offices across the state have struggled with staffing issues. In some offices, appointments can be hard to get. 

Of the 116 DMV offices across the state, fewer than half have appointments available for first-time driver’s licenses and state ID cards, according to a recent report by Carolina Demography. 

The situation is less bleak in the Border Belt. The DMV offices in Bladen, Columbus and Scotland counties are fully staffed, and the Robeson County office has only one vacancy, said spokesperson Marty Homan. 

The offices in all four counties have appointments available for state ID cards, Homan said. 

The N.C. Board of Elections announced this month that voters can get ID cards at county elections offices. Voters will provide their name, date of birth and last four digits of their Social Security number, and they will get their photo taken. 

Officials say informing voters about the ID law is key. Dell Parker, elections director for Scotland County, said efforts are well underway. 

“We are doing everything we can to educate Scotland County’s citizens of the new voter identification card requirement,” she said. 

Parker said she has arranged for meetings with the local Republican and Democratic parties.

Programs are taking place across the state. Jones said his organization has partnered with several voting rights advocacy groups, including VoteRiders, to plan a 100-county community education and engagement tour. 

Wallace, whose organization is part of the nonprofit VoteRiders network, said this education is especially important to empower young voters of color in rural communities. 

“Turnout wasn’t what we would have hoped from folks of color in the 2022 election, which impacted the makeup of the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Wallace said. “Voter ID provisions create circular barriers that continue to suppress the vote of marginalized people. It’s a solution in search of a problem.”

What IDs are accepted?

The North Carolina State Board of Elections will accept several forms of ID in elections, including the Nov. 7 municipal elections. They are: 

  • North Carolina driver’s license
  • State ID from the NCDMV (also called “non-operator ID”)
  • Driver’s license or non-driver ID from another state, District of Columbia or U.S. territory (only if voter registered in North Carolina within 90 days of the election)
  • U.S. passport or U.S. passport card
  • North Carolina voter photo ID card issued by a county board of elections 
  • College or university student ID approved by the State Board of Elections
  • State or local government or charter school employee ID approved by the State Board of Elections
  • Military or veterans ID card issued by the U.S. government
  • Tribal enrollment card issued by a tribe recognized by the state or federal government
  • ID card issued by an agency of the U.S. government or the state of North Carolina for a public assistance program

The state elections board says all voters will be allowed to vote with or without a photo ID. Those without an acceptable ID will fill out an ID Exception Form and a provisional ballot. Acceptable excuses for the Exception Form include lack of transportation, lost or stolen ID, disability or illness or family responsibilities. (A full list is available at the NCSBE website.)