North Carolina is among GOP states to change its voting rules. The primary will be a test

Charlie Collicutt, Director of the Guilford County board of elections, poses for a photo, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Greensboro, N.C. Republicans in North Carolina pushed through extensive reforms to state voting laws last year, becoming the latest state where Republican lawmakers have targeted voting rights since the 2020 election. The Super Tuesday primary on March 5 will be the first statewide election under the new restrictions. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Charlie Collicutt, Director of the Guilford County board of elections, poses for a photo, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Greensboro, N.C. Republicans in North Carolina pushed through extensive reforms to state voting laws last year, becoming the latest state where Republican lawmakers have targeted voting rights since the 2020 election. The Super Tuesday primary on March 5 will be the first statewide election under the new restrictions. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s Super Tuesday ballot has plenty to draw voters, with primaries for governor and president in a swing state that will be among the most closely watched in November.

But first, voters must deal with a long list of new laws pushed by Republican lawmakers to make sure they can cast their ballots — and that they will be counted.

This will be the first statewide election requiring voters to provide a photo ID to vote in person due to a 2018 law that had been delayed by lawsuits. A separate law added a requirement that voters who cast their ballot by mail include a copy of their photo ID in the envelope. Yet another change approved last year says any mailed ballot received after Tuesday won’t be counted, eliminating the previous three-day grace period for ballots postmarked by the day of the election.

All this has landed on local election officials, who must not only work the new rules into their election preparations but also educate voters on how to navigate them.

“If you don’t know if you’ve got the right kind of ID, just bring everything you got,” said Charlie Collicutt, elections director in Guilford County, home to some 377,000 registered voters. “Dump your purse out and we’re going to find if one of your IDs works. And if it doesn’t, we got a process for you.”

His advice to voters: Be persistent and don’t let the new rules deter you from casting a ballot.

The changes in North Carolina were among the most extensive state voting reforms passed last year and continue a trend among Republican state legislatures, many of which have passed laws since 2021 adding new voting restrictions. The laws were pushed through after former President Donald Trump began falsely claiming that widespread fraud cost him reelection, claims that have resonated with many Republicans.

Democrats in North Carolina and elsewhere have criticized many of the new laws as attacks on voting rights that often target minority and low-income voters. North Carolina’s changes in 2023 were pushed through without any Democratic support by Republican lawmakers who hold a super-majority in the legislature. They overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose final term ends this year.

“They want chaos to continue to try and cover up the fact that Trump tried to steal this election,” Cooper said in an interview. “They are trying to change the laws in order to gain significant advantage by restricting people’s voting rights.”

Mail voting has been a major focus of Republican legislatures over the past few years. They have moved up deadlines to request mail ballots, added ID requirements and limited third-party ballot collection. Some states also have banned or limited the use of ballot drop boxes.

In another state voting Tuesday, Texas, legal challenges have not stopped sweeping changes made in 2021 from taking effect. During the state’s 2022 primary, about 13% of mail ballots were rejected as voters struggled to navigate new rules.

One of the new laws in North Carolina that has drawn significant concerns, a planned overhaul of who picks state and county election board members, is on hold pending a legal challenge.

Republican legislators have said the changes respond to what their constituents believe are problems in recent elections. While Republicans performed well in 2020 in the state, GOP leaders were unhappy with legal actions involving the state board that extended the deadline for receiving mail ballots, a change made amid worries about mail delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new changes contain “commonsense reforms that restore faith in our elections,” GOP Sens. Paul Newton and Warren Daniel, the 2023 bills’ chief sponsors, said in a statement when lawmakers voted to override the governor’s vetoes. “Voters can go to the polls knowing that elections are being conducted in a fair, nonpartisan manner.”

While no major problems have been reported statewide ahead of the final day of voting Tuesday, critics of the changes have warned that many voters could be in danger of not having their ballots counted.

More than 12,000 ballots out of the 5.5 million counted for the November 2020 election in North Carolina were received in the three days after the general election and were counted, according to state data. Republicans argue that everyone’s voting deadline should be the same and that people will get used to the earlier absentee ballot deadline.

“In North Carolina, we’ve had an election system that has been tried and true,” said state Rep. Allen Buansi, a Democrat from Chapel Hill. “When you’re making those kinds of changes for our election systems without even the consent or negotiation of a minority party — much less the people of the state who vote — you’re causing just tremendous damage to our election systems.”

For election officials, the focus has been on educating voters as they enter a presidential election year that is expected to generate high interest.

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said the agency launched an advertising campaign for the new ID requirements that includes an informational webpage and a mailer that was sent to 4.9 million households ahead of the primary. Another mailer is planned before the November election.

“With this primary, we are going to learn a lot about how far-reaching our message has been helping voters to understand that we do have photo ID in place, and we will continue that messaging into the fall,” Brinson Bell told reporters last month.

Data from last November’s municipal elections, the first time the new voter ID bill was in use, showed that of the 614,000 ballots cast, fewer than 600 provisional ballots were submitted by people who didn’t have a qualifying ID at the polls. Just over half of those ended up being counted.

Voting rights groups, however, released a report after the municipal elections that found voters lacking qualifying IDs were treated differently depending on the county and sometimes failed to receive an exception form. The State Board of Elections approved rule changes in February to help address those concerns.

The new photo ID requirement for mail ballots means more materials to produce, increased postage costs and more work for local election officials. Olivia McCall, the elections director for Wake County, which has about 823,000 registered voters, said her staff was trying to ensure that casting a ballot remains seamless.

“Our goal is for people to be able to vote, have a smooth voting experience and come out saying, ‘Hey, this was an easy process,’” she said.

Jeronica Dickerson took advantage of early voting recently at a voting center in Raleigh, the state capital, and said she had no problems with the new voter ID requirement. She thought it was odd that she didn’t have to show her ID in previous elections.

“We’re from South Carolina. When we initially moved here and we went to vote, we pulled out our ID because it was habit for us. And they were like, ‘Oh, no, you don’t need that,’” she said. “So with this happening now, I didn’t feel weird showing my photo ID.”

But she also said she can understand voters who aren’t used to the new law and might get frustrated if they don’t have the right kind of ID.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s primary, voting advocacy groups across the state have been trying to help voters understand all the new rules.

Common Cause North Carolina has created a 12-page booklet outlining the changes made since 2020, including how voters can file challenges if turned away.

Jennifer Rubin, president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, said her group has spent significant time explaining the law so voters don’t get frustrated and decide to stay home.

“We’re trying to walk the line between informing and not confusing,” she said. “But it’s a fine line between these changes and people just saying, ‘Oh my God, it sounds confusing. I’m just not going to vote.’”

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Robertson reported from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.

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