Opinion: Tackling The ‘We’ll Never Know’ Argument Against Voter ID

N.C. Driver’s License. Source: Carolina Journal

By Mitch Kokai
John Locke Foundation

North Carolina’s voter identification law operated without much fanfare during this year’s local elections. That’s good news.

Without any evidence of real problems, opponents didn’t abandon their cause. Instead they resorted to dubious arguments against voter ID. We’ll return to that topic below.

First, it’s worth citing a recent Associated Press article.

“Statewide and county officials say carrying out the photo ID requirement has gone well during three tranches of contests that began with mail-in absentee voting in mid-August,” AP reported. The ID requirement has caused no major problems “even though they’ve had few resources with which to communicate the changes to the public.”

“A very low percentage of ballots cast has failed to count based on the rules,” according to the report.

The Republican-led General Assembly has championed voter ID for years. After voters added an ID requirement to the state constitution in 2018, GOP lawmakers wrote the current ID law. It took effect for the first time this year after a series of legal delays.

State and local elections boards led by Democrats have administered the law. No official has screamed about ID-related impediments.

“The process is going well, said Mecklenburg County elections director Michael Dickerson, ‘much better than I expected,’” according to the AP report. Mecklenburg elections officials enforced the ID requirement for elections in Charlotte, other municipalities, and the countywide school board.

Despite the good news, the AP featured one critic “concerned the new process is impeding voting.”

“It’s crucial to understand that not all barriers to voting are immediately visible, especially for marginalized communities,” state NAACP executive director Da’Quan Love told AP. “And we will never know how many people will simply not vote because of the barrier to voting.”

It’s true. We’ll never know how many people didn’t vote because of voter ID. It’s just as true that we will never know how many people decided to cast ballots because of voter ID.

In an era of heightened distrust about the electoral process, at least some voters are more likely to participate if they know that people who show up to the polls can prove their identities.

More than 2 million North Carolinians, 55% of total voters, decided in 2018 that a photo ID requirement should be included in North Carolina’s state constitution.

When the John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Poll last asked the question in May, nearly 66% of likely general election voters agreed that “every person that votes in person in North Carolina should present photo identification before voting.” Just 23% disagreed. Some 54% of voters “strongly” agreed with the voter ID requirement, compared to 16% who strongly disagreed.

Support reached 72% among men and 60% among women. Yes, partisans split on the issue, with 95% of Republicans endorsing voter ID, compared to just 37% of Democrats. Unaffiliated voters, who outnumber members of both parties, supported voter ID, 67% to 18%.

Among racial groups, voter ID was most popular among whites (72%). But support trumped opposition in every racial category. Among black voters, the supposed targets of Republican efforts to “suppress” votes, 45% of likely voters endorsed voter ID, while 33% opposed it.

Critics dismiss the argument that voter ID boosts voters’ faith in election integrity. The same Civitas Poll addressed that issue.

Slightly less than 51% of likely general election voters believed “this year’s elections in North Carolina will be free and fair.” A disturbing 31% did not expect free, fair elections.

Almost 63% of those surveyed said voter ID increased their confidence in the “fairness and accuracy” of state elections. A quarter of voters said the ID requirement would make no difference in their assessment of fair elections. Just 10% said a photo ID rule made them less confident about fair, accurate elections.

That 10% number offers little help for ID critics’ case.

We’re unlikely to get a firm grip on the number of people who decided to cast a ballot this year — or will head to the polls in 2024 — because voter ID gives them more confidence in the electoral system. But poll numbers suggest voter ID will help boost confidence in elections moving forward.

The municipal elections offer only a test run for voter ID in 2024. With a presidential election, an open governor’s race, multiple open Council of State contests, and battles for every North Carolina seat in the legislature and US House of Representatives, we can expect many more voters. The ID requirement will face more scrutiny.

But critics will need more than just the “we’ll never know” argument to offer a compelling case against a strongly supported election-integrity measure.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.