It's ba-aack. The Voter ID bill is on the GOP agenda again.
Last night the Republican leadership held a public hearing on proposed Voter ID legislation. (It happened after press time; check our Triangulator blog for a roundup.)
The bill, which almost 75 percent of North Carolinians support, according to a recent Elon University poll, is being framed as a way to address the issue of voter fraud. Except there have been no notable instances of voter fraud. And there's another reason former Gov. Bev Perdue put the kibosh on Voter ID when the measure landed on her desk in 2011: "This bill, as written, will unnecessarily and unfairly disenfranchise many eligible and legitimate voters," she stated at the time.
It's difficult to know what identification will suffice at the polls if Voter ID becomes law, but it's likely that a driver's license or a state-issued identification card will be required.
Opponents of the legislation point out that a significant number of North Carolina voters don't have photo ID and may find obtaining one to be time-consuming and expensive. Numbers from the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles and State Board of Elections, compiled by watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, show that 506,000 active registered voters in the state don't have photo ID: 31 percent are African-American, 66 percent are women, 26 percent are seniors and 53 percent are Democrats, compared to 23 percent who are Republican.
The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been behind the design of these bills nationwide. (House Speaker Thom Tillis is an ALEC member, and won a State Legislator of the Year award in 2011.) According to data from New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, at least 34 states have introduced photo ID legislation since 2011, and in eight states, new photo ID bills have become law.
Though Tillis pledged that the bill "will include provisions that make IDs readily available at no cost to residents," Democracy NC Executive Director Bob Hall says that making IDs free could cost the state millions of dollars and is an unlikely scenario.
"There [would be] people having to go get a driver's license," says Hall, "and then it turns out they have to go get a birth certificate. Then the birth certificate has their maiden name on it, so then they have to get a marriage license to show that their name has changed. The whole thing starts to add up to a lot of money and it really does amount to a poll tax."
There's also the question of the bill's necessity. According to Veronica Degraffenreid of the state Board of Elections: "There's no evidence to substantiate any type of widespread or systematic voter fraud in North Carolina. There are various types of voter fraud, so to the extent that any one person or entity has impersonated another voter, then certainly voter ID would help to prevent that specific type of voter fraud. But in the elections world there are other types of fraud that voter ID may not necessarily address."
The kinds of voter fraud that voter ID laws would potentially address—impersonation and misrepresentation of residency—are rare in North Carolina. An official document from the Board of Elections states that "most allegations prove to be unfounded, lack criminal intent, or cannot be substantiated."
From 2000–2012, district attorneys investigated just two cases of impersonation and three in which residency was thought to have been misrepresented.
Because of its potential to disenfranchise African-American voters, voter ID legislation has been compared to the Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racism in the U.S. for almost a century. "The horror villain we can't get rid of, essentially the specter of Jim Crow," says N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller, "returns to the nightmare on Jones Street we're seeing in this state."
However, the constitutionality of voter ID legislation has already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2008 ruled 6–3 that Indiana's voter ID law is constitutional.
In North Carolina though, legislation faces a major hurdle: 40 counties with histories of discriminatory voting practices are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Any changes to the voting laws in these jurisdictions must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
Hall says that Section 5 provides the basis for a challenge. "The Justice Department did step in, in South Carolina, for exactly the same reason," he said. "They had the numbers that show that a disproportionately high number of African-Americans would be the ones who are registered voters who don't have a driver's license. And we've got that data here."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Picture this."