Ethan Ehrenhaft ‘20
On October 22nd, 2019, Federal Election Commission (FEC) Chair Ellen L. Weintraub issued a warning on Twitter: “ALERT! According to the NC State Board of Elections, dozens of [North Carolina] colleges and universities have not yet had their student IDs approved as photo IDs for voting.” The alarm bell may never have sounded without the work of two Davidson College students.
In the November 2018 midterms, North Carolinians approved a state constitutional amendment requiring voter ID at the polls. That December, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed S.B. 824 to enforce the amendment, making North Carolina one of 35 states with some form of voter ID law in effect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The law, which survived Governor Roy Cooper’s veto, gave the NC State Board of Elections (NCSBE) until March 15th, 2019 to approve student IDs submitted by colleges for use in 2019 and 2020 primaries and elections. However, many schools found it impossible to file applications given the tight time frame.
Following pressure from state Democrats and the UNC System, the NC House of Representatives passed a new ID bill (H.B. 646) in May, extending the deadline until October 26th. H.B. 646 also eased requirements for eligible student IDs — colleges would no longer be required to issue the photos shown on IDs or confirm a students’ social security number, for instance.
At the start of the fall semester, College Democrats President Cutler Renard ’20 and Center for Political Engagement (CPE) Chair Joe DeMartin ’21 realized that under the amended voter ID law, many existing college IDs, including Davidson’s CatCard, likely qualified for use at the polls. The law’s more lenient standards, they reasoned, alleviated the need for colleges to produce entirely new S.B. 824-compliant IDs, which Davidson had already filed for approval for back before March 15th.
Yet at the time of Weintraub’s Tweet, only a handful of schools had filed new applications, meaning thousands of NC students risked not having an acceptable form of voter ID come 2020.
“We began to realize that nobody knew that this was now a significantly easier process to have their IDs approved, nobody had any idea what was really going on with this whole situation […] thousands and thousands of students are going to be left out of this crucial process because they won’t have an easy, approved ID,” DeMartin said.
To confirm their interpretation of the law was correct, the two students spent hours talking to attorneys, state politicians, and voting rights organizations such as Democracy N.C., and even Davidson alum Tom Moore ’90, who serves as counsel to Weintraub at the FEC. DeMartin and Renard also serve on the Student Government Association’s nonpartisan Voter Accessibility Council, the role which they operated under while discussing the law’s effects with Moore.
According to Moore, DeMartin and Renard were “absolutely” the ones who raised awareness about H.B. 646 to the FEC. “This would not have been on my radar, the college’s radar, and Chair Weintraub’s radar if it had not been for the efforts of Cutler and Joe,” he said. Weintraub attributed students for bringing the new ID issues to her attention in a letter sent to North Carolina university and college presidents the same day as her Twitter warning.
In late September, DeMartin and Renard also began contacting the State Board of Elections to determine the status of Davidson’s application. They were told that Davidson had only submitted a secondary ID for approval back in March. In meetings with the administration and faculty members throughout October, the two students relayed what they had learned about the up-to-date ID requirements, which they now knew CatCards satisfied.
On October 24th, Davidson Vice President and General Counsel Sarah Phillips ’01 sent an application to the NCSBE to approve CatCards’ eligibility as voter ID. Had Davidson neglected to do so, students may have been left at the polls without an approved ID in the 2020 presidential election.
Without the approval of existing CatCards, students would have had to receive the secondary state-approved IDs from CatCard Services, a process that DeMartin and Renard argued would have still hindered students’ ability to vote.
“We immediately realized that this was going to be a massive undertaking and a massive barrier for students. The reality of the situation, for a lot of Davidson students, is that to even wait 15 minutes in line to get an ID is a huge burden for many students,” DeMartin stated.
NC Board of Elections member Stella Anderson, who worked with DeMartin and Renard throughout their effort, said student activism was needed at more campuses to help push for applications.
“There needed to be someone who led the way, someone who advocated with the administration, with the general counsel’s office. Someone who was extremely persistent to make sure that this happened on their campus,” she said.
Even though H.B. 646 made it easier to receive approval, religious studies professor and Precinct 206 Democrats Chair Dr. Greg Snyder argued that many colleges were still deterred by the complexity and nuance of the bill’s language.
“[The changes] have thrown a lot of sand in peoples’ eyes, and a lot of people aren’t going to be as scrupulous and careful as Joe and Cutler were to go back and say ‘look, there’s a new law, let’s go in and read the fine print,’” said Dr. Snyder. “People just don’t have the drive and the gumption to actually go back and do it. I think that is the hope and the assumption on the part of these legislators, that people just won’t do it.”
Even with the last minute applications, thousands of North Carolina students may still be left without their student IDs approved, a development that could prove to be a decisive factor in elections. National student turnout for the 2018 midterms was more than double that in 2014, according to a recent New York Times article, and student turnout will likely be critical for battleground states in the 2020 presidential election.
Anderson said the NCSBE ultimately received 46 applications before the October 26th deadline. While impressive given only a handful of schools had applied at the start of the month, the number still accounts for “fewer than half the state’s 180-plus accredited schools,” reported The New York Times. Thousands of students may be left without an acceptable form of voter ID come the 2020 presidential election.
“There will be student voters who are unable to vote in 2020 because they don’t have the proper ID. I hope between now and then we can come up with an alternate way for people to obtain ID for voting that can be done easily at a polling location,” stated Democratic Representative Christy Clark, who represents District 98 and northern Mecklenburg County in the N.C. State House.
Clark knows just how crucial student can be in both national and state elections. She won her N.C. House of Representatives seat in 2018 by just 415 votes, an election that 588 Davidson students participated in, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement.
While a final decision on Davidson’s CatCard application will not be released until November 1st, DeMartin and Renard are optimistic from conversations with the NCSBE that it will be approved.
“I do think it’s on us to do everything we can to support and encourage students to vote and to make it possible and, if we can, easier for them to vote,” reflected College President Carol Quillen.
“Part of the idea of Davidson is, we’re a group of people who are being educated to think critically but also to think critically with an eye towards using that for a purpose. I think we really should realize that not only in some future date, but also now we have actual influence and the actual ability to make positive change in the state, in our local community, if we just act,” Renard concluded.