“I don’t recognize our country anymore,” Ruby Warren declared on March 15, standing in the parking lot of West Asheville’s Calvary Baptist Church, clipboard in hand. “Without voting, we have no democracy.” A bright yellow Democracy North Carolina T-shirt announced her purpose. This was the 30-year Asheville resident’s first time volunteering with the organization, and her job was to engage voters exiting the polls, ask about their experiences and connect those who’d had problems with the nonprofit’s voter hotline.
Over 700 Democracy North Carolina volunteers fanned out across the state that day. They were helping ensure that no one was illegally turned away from the polls as a result of North Carolina’s 2013 voter ID law, which took effect this year.
“If you have a birthday, a Social Security number and a reason for not having an ID, you have the right to vote,” notes Darlene Azarmi, the nonprofit’s organizer for Western North Carolina.
Alice Weldon, a poll monitor stationed outside Isaac Dickson Elementary, emphasized, “We are absolutely nonpartisan. Our importance is simply to document if there are any issues.”
According to the law, an individual’s vote will count if the voter provides a “reasonable impediment” explaining why they lacked an acceptable ID. The recognized impediments include things like family obligations, transportation problems, work schedule and illness or disability. Once a valid impediment is offered, voters need only provide a birth date, the last four digits of their Social Security number and proof of residency (such as a utility bill, bank statement or pay stub) in order to cast a provisional ballot.
Spreading the word
This crucial information may not have reached all affected parties, however. In a survey conducted by Democracy North Carolina during last fall’s election, half the respondents said they hadn’t been informed about the upcoming changes in voting requirements.
Accordingly, in the weeks leading up to the primary, the organization’s staff hosted two dozen “vote protector” training sessions across the state. The Asheville session, held Feb. 25 at Hill Street Baptist Church, had “one of the largest turnouts, drawing dozens of engaged citizens to help local voters make their ballots count during the March primary,” Communications Manager Jen Jones reports.
Executive Director Bob Hall, who led the session, “was a great speaker,” said Warren. “He was very enthusiastic, easy to listen to and very knowledgeable.”
In Buncombe County alone, more than 88 volunteers covered 18 precincts on primary day, handing out pamphlets that spelled out voters’ rights, Azarmi explains. They worked in shifts, beginning at 6:15 a.m. and continuing until the polls closed at 7:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, volunteer lawyers and election experts staffed a hotline that voters could call to get help dealing with more complex issues. “The hotline is great, because it means I don’t have to be an expert about everything,” said Warren. “I just need to recognize when to tell somebody to call the number.”
There were some technical difficulties early on, but they were quickly resolved. “Dozens of attorneys and election experts took calls, with countless other attorneys handling overflow from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.,” notes Jones.
Martha Kropf, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte, says she and Hall “worked together to craft questions” for the exit survey. Half concerned basic information: age, income, ethnicity and gender. Others asked whether election officials had checked and accepted photo IDs, and how voters felt about the changes in the voting rules.
“The survey may help inform efforts to understand whether requiring a government-issued photo identification enables a fair and secure process about which North Carolina voters can feel confident,” Kropf explains. Is the ID requirement, she continues, “the best use of scarce resources, given public goals for elections?”
Weldon, meanwhile, said most voters at Isaac Dickson seemed “completely agreeable with the short exit survey. I think maybe three in the last hour told me no.”
Laura Eshelman, stationed at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on North Liberty Street, said her team had had a fairly uneventful day. “A few people had to go to different precincts; otherwise, we didn’t hear any negative experiences. I am curious to hear how things went in some of the more rural areas, where people are probably more affected by the law.”
Democracy North Carolina is still gathering and processing the data, and Hall expects it will be several more weeks before the organization can provide specifics about the results in individual counties. To date, however, the hotline has received more than 1,000 calls from voters seeking information or requesting assistance with problems such as incorrect application of the law, failure to provide provisional ballots and last-minute changes of polling places. Many voters also faced long lines due to understaffing and inadequately trained election workers.
Some volunteers made no bones about their dissatisfaction with the voter ID law. “I’m a veteran, and to me, the right to vote is one of the things we fought for,” said Jeff Israel, who helped monitor the Calvary Baptist Church polling station. “We should be encouraging people to vote rather than discouraging it.”
Jury’s still out
Various organizations, including the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, are challenging the voter ID law in both federal and state courts, and the law’s ultimate fate is not expected to be determined for some time. But the results of the surveys, the hotline and the incident reports filled out by folks who did have problems voting will be factored into an independent report by Kropf that’s due out later this year. Some of those findings, notes Hall, “may be used in the current legal challenges.”
In the meantime, Jones encourages people to keep up with the issues. The nonprofit’s training sessions, she notes, will continue until the November general election, covering the voter ID law as well as voter registration and other issues.
And despite her deep concerns, Warren remains optimistic. “My hope is that we’re able to compile a significant amount of documented information to help the state get rid of gerrymandering and voter suppression, so we can make voting as easy as possible for everyone and ensure that all votes count.”