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Expect state lawmakers to act quickly on Voter ID

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If anyone starts an office pool on how soon after convening the General Assembly will pass a Voter ID bill, put me down for an hour and a half.

Last session, the GOP-dominated House couldn't secure enough Democratic defections to override Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of a bill that would have put North Carolina at the vanguard of a nationwide voter suppression movement.

House Bill 351, better known by its Orwellian short title, "Restore Confidence in Government," would have disenfranchised tens of thousands of North Carolina voters. For hundreds of thousands of others, the measure would have created additional burdens to registering and voting by requiring them to obtain a government-issued photo ID, which in turn requires possession of one's original birth certificate, a valid passport or other official papers.

In the end, the bill's defeat saved the state costly legal fees. Like similarly harsh laws passed in South Carolina and Texas, this state's Voter ID bill would have most certainly been squashed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ would likely have used its preclearance authority under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, setting off a legal battle between the state and the feds just before a critical national election.

Now, with a new Legislature preparing to head to Raleigh, lawmakers are reshaping new Voter ID legislation for the upcoming session, which opens Jan. 9.

In an interview in the Wilmington StarNews, House Speaker Thom Tillis said Voter ID would be introduced early and move quickly. He also indicated that reality is settling in.

"We want to implement it in a thoughtful way that makes it less likely that it's going to be subject to a legal challenge," Tillis told the StarNews' Patrick Gannon.

Brent Laurenz, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said voting rights advocates are bracing for a new law early in the session. Laurenz said it won't be a rewrite of the strictly worded 2011 legislation.

"They're looking at what the courts are doing," he said.

Laurenz said the critical details in reviewing new proposals will be how the law addresses the cost of an official ID, the permissible alternative forms of identification, and the process for handling provisional ballots cast by people without ID on Election Day.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerates the Voting Rights Act (which, unfortunately, could happen as early as next spring), it's still the law of the land.

North Carolina's legacy of racial vote suppression is why it's one of nine states subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Under that section, the General Assembly needs preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice to change the state's voting laws. Any new bill will have to prove that it doesn't cause a decrease—the term is "retrogression"—in minority voting power.

Many Voter ID laws recently adopted by states do just that, while also disenfranchising people with disabilities, elderly voters, students, people who can't afford the time and cost of getting an ID, and those hampered by bureaucratic snafus.

Nonetheless, Voter ID laws remain popular even though they ostensibly address a small problem. A 2008 State Board of Elections study estimated that there were roughly five incidents of voter fraud for every 1 million votes cast. Yet an Elon University poll taken during the last session showed that 75 percent of North Carolinians surveyed supported a photo ID law.

In 2011, the Brennan Center for Justice warned that new laws and executive orders in 19 states threatened to make it significantly harder for 5 million citizens to cast ballots. An October 2012 report says the push back from citizens, public officials and the U.S. DOJ resulted in 14 of those states repealing or weakening their new rules.

As some Voter ID bills worked through state and federal courts even in places not subject to preclearance, there was a focus on the potential difficulties in obtaining required identification. That discussion scuttled a law in Pennsylvania after the state Supreme Court set a high bar for the implementation of the ID program, requiring proof that there was sufficient time and state resources.

A lower court, which had initially ruled in favor of the law, ruled that the state's distribution of IDs and the backlog in requests made it impossible to guarantee it would not lead to large numbers of voters unable to cast ballots.

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC School of Law's Center for Civil Rights, said the Pennsylvania case was important because it shows that implementing Voter ID is complicated and expensive.

The negative effects will be multiplied, he said, if the law isn't accompanied by additional money and support to implement it.

"Recent history in North Carolina shows we're not very good at this," Dorosin said. He noted that because of the Legislature's refusal last year to add a small matching fund to the budget, the state lost more than $4 million in federal money available under the Help America Vote Act. "The attitude that the money was not needed was not a good sign," he said.

Neither was the advertising budget for last session's Voter ID bill, which set aside a whopping $600,000 to publicize the changes. (Pennsylvania's Voter ID law included $5 million for advertising alone.)

The new law being readied right now may very well eliminate that one fraudulent voter out of every 200,000. But unless provisions fairly deal with the roughly half million Tar Heel voters without a photo ID and adequately inform the public about the changes, then it's little more than a slick attempt at suppressing turnout. It won't restore confidence in government, but it will reaffirm the belief that Jim Crow is alive and well in North Carolina.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Your papers, please."

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