by Travis Fain
Legislation that would require North Carolina voters to show photo I.D. at the polls will likely get a committee vote and move to the House floor next week, House Elections Committee Chairman David Lewis said Tuesday.
A vote had been expected Tuesday evening, immediately following a lengthy hearing on House Bill 351, the voter I.D. bill that was filed Monday night. But Lewis, a Dunn Republican and one of the bill's primary sponsors, said that vote would wait until next week, following more discussion and consideration of amendments.
The long-anticipated bill sparked passions on both sides of the issue Tuesday, filling one of the General Assembly's largest committee rooms with speakers, observers, legislators and media. More than 35 people spoke for or against the bill over a two-hour public comment session, which was followed by another two hours of committee members discussing the bill.
Quick passage of a photo I.D. bill was promised in the GOP's pre-election plan for the first 100 days of this session, and some form of this bill is expected to clear the House and Senate relatively easily, given Republican majorities in both chambers. Whether Gov. Bev Perdue will sign the bill, or veto it, is less clear, and could set up another fight between the Democratic governor and the new GOP leadership in the General Assembly.
Bill supporters argue that voter I.D. is a common sense bulwark against voter fraud. Current state law allows people to use utility bills, paychecks or one of several government documents without a picture to vote. Yet people have to show photo I.D. to buy cigarettes, cash a check, get on a plane, drive a car or do any number of other common things, proponents argued Tuesday.
But people against the bill see sinister motives behind the call for voter I.D., which the Republican Party has successfully pushed in a number of states in recent years. They argue that poor people, minorities and senior citizens are less likely to have photo identification. And even if the state provides free I.D.'s, there's a cost in time and money to get one — especially for an elderly person stuck in a nursing home who has lost their birth certificate.
Proponents counter that argument by pointing to the state's mail-in absentee voting laws, which would actually be loosened under House Bill 351 and still won't require any photo identification. Only people who travel to the polls would have to show photo I.D.
That may provide a solution for elderly voters, but seems to make it easier to defraud the voting system by mail, opponents said.
"I find that to be a little bit of a disjointed thing," state Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Raleigh, said Tuesday.
Just how much fraud there is under existing election law is difficult to say, and opponents labeled House Bill 351 "a solution in search of a problem." Lewis said about 260 potential cases of voter fraud were referred to prosecutors in 2008, but added that he and others believe most instances of fraud unreported.
During Tuesday's hearing election officials and ordinary citizens stood up on both sides of this issue. Several local party members and poll volunteers said they knew voters who cast ballots in more than one county, or committed some other voting fraud. But no names were given in these anecdotes.
People on both sides of the bill pointed to election problems in Washington County, where irregularities forced local officials to call a redo in their election for sheriff. Depending on your point of view, the fact that four dead people ended up on a voter history in the county is either proof that voter I.D. overhauls are needed, or just an overblown case with a simple explanation.
There are also questions about how many registered North Carolina voters don't have picture I.D. The State Board of Elections compared its records to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles' and found some 460,000 people on its rolls without a drivers' license, Lewis said. But the chairman said he believes the actual number of voters without photo I.D.s is more like 200,000, because the checks didn't take into account military I.D.s and other government I.D.s that would be accepted at the polls.
"There's no one central entity that issues I.D.s," Lewis said.
The two sides also can't get together on how much it would cost the state to issue free I.D.s to people who need them. Lewis said legislative staffers are working to answer that question in a fiscal note that will be attached to the bill. But the Institute for Southern Studies estimated the cost by examining other states that have implemented photo I.D. laws in recent years, and it's "conservative estimate" is that it will cost "at least $18 million" to make the I.D.s and educate voters about new requirements, Institute Executive Director Chris Kromm said.
With legislators cutting state jobs — likely including teaching jobs — to balance the budget this year, this is unnecessary spending, Kromm and several others argued Tuesday.
Beyond the sweeping descriptions of how requiring photo I.D. at the polls would affect senior citizens, poor people and minorities, there were several concrete examples of people who could be denied their vote if this bill passes. That includes women who get married and change their names shortly before an election. Ashely Foxx of Durham explained to legislators how long that process took her, saying if she'd started it within a month of an election, she wouldn't have been able to finalize her name change in time to vote.
People who move often and don't keep their drivers license up to date would also be adversely affected, according to Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Statistically, that would affect black people and Latinos far more than whites, Riggs said.
But there's an answer for that: People with out-of-date drivers licenses will be allowed to vote, even if those licenses have an out-of-precinct address, Gerry Cohen, who heads up the General Assembly's legislative drafting division, told legislators Tuesday.
The racial component of this debate simmered throughout Tuesday's hearing and debate that followed among committee members, particularly for those old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement.
"What you're doing is an abomination," state Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, told bill sponsors.
Michaux, who is black, added that he knows people who died to make sure people of all races could vote safely in North Carolina. The bill's white sponsors said their bill isn't meant to keep any legal voters from voting, it's to shut down fraud.
People of both races said they found that hard to believe.
"I'm telling you, I fought for a lot of things in my life," said Martha Carmichael, who is 79, white, and lives in a Chapel Hill nursing home. "And I'm seeing everything go backwards. And I know what this is about."
Tuesday's debate focused on the Voter I.D. portion of House Bill 351, which appears to be its most controversial section. But there are several other parts to the bill that make relatively major changes to state law, including:
- Making it illegal for people and businesses who have a state contract over $25,000 to make a contribution of over $1,000 to state officials with the power to help award that contract, during the term of the contract. Supporters said this is meant to cut down on pay-to-play politics. Detractors noted that the bill doesn't prevent donations immediately before, or after, the life of the contract.
- Allowing registered voters in a precinct, and outside observers, to challenge specific voters if they don't believe that voter has showed photo I.D. at the polls.
- New language to push political campaign officers to quickly report campaign violations.
- New rules to limit the State Board of Elections chairman to two two-year terms.