With Republicans in control of the General Assembly, a so-called Photo ID requirement for voting in North Carolina seems inevitable. This is despite critics' assertions that, as Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said, such a measure is a solution in search of a problem.
The question now is, will the law be so onerous that it becomes an obstacle to voting? Or will it allow a registered voter, if he or she has no driver's license or other government-issued ID with a photo on it, to offer alternative forms of identification currently being accepted for first-time voters? These include, according to director of the Durham County elections board Mike Ashe, a utility bill, a bank statement or a government check, or other paycheck showing name and address.
Debate on that subject delayed the introduction of a GOP bill in the first week of the session. Republican candidates across the state promised a Photo ID bill would be one of their first initiatives if they took control of the Legislature. In that stance, they mimicked GOP leaders in other states who've sounded alarms about illegal aliens or other ineligible folks flooding the polls—perhaps even stealing legitimate voters' identities.
That's not likely, says Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, an elections reform group. "Extensive national studies show that voter impersonation happens so rarely," Hall says, "you are more likely to be hit by lightning than have somebody vote in your name."
The State Board of Elections logged just 18 reported cases of voter fraud in 2008 that a Photo ID law would've prevented. It's already a felony to lie when you sign in to vote in North Carolina, Hall notes. And an ID with a verified address is required to register.
State NAACP President William Barber said the real purpose of a Photo ID law may be to discourage voting, especially by low-income people who don't drive or own a car. "What they're talking about is a step back to the poll tax," Barber said.
To comply with the federal Help America Vote Act, Ashe said, since 2006, North Carolina has asked everyone registering to vote for a driver's license number or the last four digits of the person's Social Security number. The names and numbers are run against the Division of Motor Vehicles or Social Security database, Ashe said. If there's no match (for example, a recently married woman whose name has changed), or if the person registering has neither a license nor a Social Security card, he or she is listed in poll books as needing to show valid identification before voting. Photo IDs aren't required, however. A utility bill or the like will suffice.
Outside groups that register people to vote—the Republicans love to point fingers at the now-defunct ACORN organization—are similarly required to submit a driver's license or Social Security number for every new applicant, or else the applicant must offer ID at the polls.
Democracy NC says a strict Photo ID requirement may discourage college students, people in rest homes or people with disabilities who don't have a valid driver's license or whose license doesn't show their current address.
The DMV does offer people who don't drive the option of obtaining a residency Photo ID for $10. Applicants need to prove their age and identity. According to DMV's website, a long list of photo and non-photo documents may be offered as proof, ranging from a passport to a letter from a homeless shelter.
However, the $10 fee could be interpreted as a form of poll tax, which is unconstitutional under the 24th Amendment. In this case, the state would need to establish a system for obtaining a free Photo ID should the Legislature pass a strict Photo ID law.
The cost of such a law could be in the millions of dollars, according to Hall. He said the official cost estimate in Missouri was more than $12 million to supply free IDs to voters without one, to pay for additional poll workers and to run a modest voter education campaign so people aren't caught unaware when they try to vote.
An Indiana law enacted in 2005 with a strict Photo ID requirement and with provisions for free IDs was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 by a 6-3 vote. The dissenters thought it put an unconstitutional burden on the right to participate in federal elections.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states have voter ID laws that go beyond the requirements of the Help America Vote Act. Of these, eight are strict Photo ID laws. The other 19 allow for other forms of identification without photos.
Damon Circosta, executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Center for Voter Education, is asking Republican legislators to take care as they draft a bill to avoid doing more harm than good. "While we take measures to increase security," Circosta said, "we should also look at other ways to increase voter turnout, such as electronic voter registration, Election Day registration and expanding registration activities by agencies.
"Voter turnout in the United States is already abysmally low," he added. "Anything that might suppress turnout should be carefully scrutinized."