North Carolina continues to be among the most contested political battleground states in the country. It’s been identified by the University of Virginia’s Center on Politics as one of the eight most competitive states in the 2024 presidential election after President Biden and former President Trump were separated by just 1.35% of the vote in 2020.
In February, our team at the Voting Rights Lab sounded the alarm about threats to voter access and election administration in North Carolina, identifying the state as “the epicenter of state voting rights fights in 2023.”
Since then, new laws passed by the legislature and new decisions from the recently reconfigured state supreme court have given North Carolina some of the strictest voter ID requirements in the nation; erected new barriers to mail voting; and made it more likely that ballots cast by registered voters will not be counted. In a power grab, the state legislature has also taken over the process for appointing members of state and county election boards.
The outcome of the 2024 presidential election, and the high-stakes 2024 gubernatorial election, could hinge on the ability of North Carolina voters and election officials to overcome these new challenges.
Burdensome Voter ID Requirements
New State Supreme Court Reinstates Discriminatory Voter ID Law
In 2018, the North Carolina legislature enacted a strict voter ID law over Governor Roy Cooper’s veto. The state was immediately sued, and enforcement of the law was blocked. In December 2022, after nearly five years of litigation, the state supreme court permanently struck down the ID law as violating the state constitution, finding the policy was “formulated with an impermissible intent to discriminate against African-American voters” and “motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose.” Evidence showed that Black voters in North Carolina were 39% more likely than white voters to lack the limited types of acceptable photo IDs outlined in the law.
Early this year, shortly after a change in the composition of the North Carolina Supreme Court, the justices agreed in an unprecedented move to rehear the case. They reversed the months-old decision, letting the stringent 2018 voter ID law go into effect for the first time.
In-Person Photo ID Requirement
With the 2018 law in effect, North Carolina voters will be required to show an approved photo ID to vote in person for the first time in a federal election. Alternative forms of identification – such as bank statements – cannot be accepted. And unlike most states with voter ID laws, the North Carolina law does not generally allow voters to verify their identity in another way, such as submitting a sworn affidavit or casting a provisional ballot that is verified through signature matching.
The Country’s Strictest Mail Voting ID Requirement
The 2018 law also requires that mail voters submit a photocopy of an approved photo ID with their ballot. This new requirement is layered on top of North Carolina’s existing system for verifying the identity of mail voters.
As a result, North Carolina voters will be subject to the most burdensome mail ballot requirement in the country. In order for their mail ballot to count, they will have to submit a copy of their ID and to get a witness to sign their mail ballot envelope. No other state requires both a copy of an ID and a witness signature. And, in fact, only one other state (Arkansas) requires that voters provide a copy of an ID with their mail ballot.
Rejection of Valid Mail Ballots and Same-Day Voter Registrations
In addition to the new ID requirement, North Carolina voters will also need to overcome new restrictions passed by the state legislature. S.B. 747 – enacted over the veto of Governor Cooper – is one of the most significant pieces of election legislation enacted in a battleground state this year, and makes it highly likely that mail ballots cast by registered voters will be rejected in the 2024 election.
Among its provisions, S.B. 747 ends the three-day grace period for receipt of ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, a bipartisan policy that was adopted with zero “No” votes in 2009. More than 11,000 ballots would have been tossed in the 2020 election had this law been in place.
S.B. 747 also requires that election officials reject certain ballots cast by qualified voters who take advantage of North Carolina’s same-day registration opportunity at the polls. Under the new rules, a ballot will be rejected if a single address confirmation mailer is returned as undeliverable. This generally unreliable process is dependent on individual postal workers – and incorrect addresses can be caused by election official typos through no fault of the voter.
State Legislative Takeovers, Deadlocked Boards, and Meritless Mass Challenges
A Multi-Year Campaign to Strip Gubernatorial Power
Efforts to strip the governor of election board appointment power have long been on the legislative agenda in North Carolina. However, these efforts have consistently been blocked by the previous makeup of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which held that a 2016 effort violated the state constitution’s separation of powers, or by voters, when a proposed constitutional amendment that would have shifted election board appointment authority from the governor to the legislature was rejected on the November 2018 ballot 67% to 33%.
This year, lawmakers passed S.B. 749, one of the most aggressive legislative takeover bills to be enacted since 2020. S.B. 749 gives the North Carolina State Legislature authority to appoint members of state and county election boards, an authority that previously sat with the governor and his appointees.
This bill was enacted this month over Governor Cooper’s veto. Though the governor has filed a lawsuit challenging this legislative power grab, it is assumed that the new state supreme court configuration will allow this to go forward, despite the legal precedent set in the previous attempt.
Deadlocked Boards Threaten Early Voting and Election Certification
S.B. 747 changes the constitution of county boards from an odd number of members to an even number, leaving boards vulnerable to deadlock. Deadlocked boards could result in counties offering only the statutory minimum of one early voting site, compared to the well over a dozen sites that have traditionally been offered in several counties, curtailing voter access. Boards are also responsible for certifying election results, so deadlocked boards could stand in the way of the certification of election results.
Meritless Mass Challenges to Ballots
In addition, S.B. 747 opens the door to meritless mass challenges to mail ballots and in-person early voters. Under previous law, voters could only challenge ballots cast in their precinct; S.B. 747 allows them to challenge anyone in their county.
This type of legislation can become an unnecessary strain on already under-resourced, understaffed local election officials. In Georgia, for example, ever since a 2021 law opened the door to mass challenges of voter registrations, election administrators in the state have been overwhelmed by meritless mass challenges.
Prohibiting ERIC Membership
For more than a decade, the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) has been used by both Republican and Democratic-led states as an interstate compact enabling member states to exchange information and improve the accuracy of their voter registration lists.
North Carolina appropriated funding to cover the costs of ERIC membership just last year. Then, as reported in previous Voting Rights Lab analysis, baseless concerns led several states to leave the group. North Carolina’s budget bill for the 2023-24 fiscal year, H.B. 259, contains provisions prohibiting the state from joining ERIC.
This year, North Carolina’s state legislature and reconstituted state supreme court amended the state’s voting and election administration policies in ways that will place undue burdens on voters and local election officials alike.
The laws adopted in the last year could very well impact the outcome of the 2024 election – in a state where the 2020 election came down to a 1.35% margin. How voters and election administrators adapt in the face of these new changes and obstacles remains to be seen.
Our team at Voting Rights Lab will continue to follow the implementation of these policies and their repercussions for turnout and access in the state. As always, you can use our State Voting Rights Tracker to learn more about current election law and the latest voting-related legislation in North Carolina.