Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — A bill requiring North Carolina voters to present a valid photo ID before voting was set to be introduced in the General Assembly in late February. Supporters say it’s essential to prevent voter fraud, while opponents liken the measure to a poll tax.
“To function in modern society, you need a photo ID,” said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, a primary sponsor of the bill. “The only person who’s going to be prohibited to vote under the law are those voting illegally.”
Moore, now chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, sponsored a similar measure, House Bill 430, in the 2009 session of the General Assembly. Other sponsors included the new speaker of the House, Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and current majority leader Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake. H.B. 430 would have required “every individual seeking to vote in person” to present one of two forms of identification — either “a current and valid photo identification,” or a copy of a document showing the voter’s name and address. Acceptable documents would have been a utility bill, bank statement, or government check.
Each county Board of Elections would be responsible for verifying the identities of voters.
This year’s edition, Moore said, will be modeled after an Indiana law requiring voters to present a photo ID. Voters in Indiana must present a photo ID issued by the state or U.S. government at the polls. Those who cannot are allowed to cast provisional ballots; those votes are counted if voters can provide proof of identity at their local election board (or file a sworn affadavit) within a week of the election.
The bill has not been introduced because Moore said sponsors were working out a technical issue with the bill and dealing with potential concerns about its cost.
In late February, a group of Democratic legislators held a news conference expressing opposition to Moore’s pending bill. The news conference coincided with a legislative visit from students attending historically black colleges and universities around the state. The opposition fell into three broad categories: The bill amounts to a new form of a poll tax; it would complicate the voting process, chilling turnout; and it would be an unfunded liability from the state to local governments.
“This really amounts to poll taxes,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland. “We know what that ugly chapter in our history was all about, and we wonder what will be next if you start with an ID today.”
Poll taxes were taxes local governments charged voters before the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law. The taxes were used to disenfranchise black voters in the South before the civil rights movement.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, in a 2008 case challenging Indiana’s voter ID law, rejected that comparison. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a group from the Indiana Democratic Party claimed that forcing voters to pay for a photo ID amounted to a poll tax.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens affirmed a lower court decision, noting that the benefit of reducing the risk of fraud outweighed the potential burden to voters of acquiring a photo ID — especially if measures are taken allowing provisional ballots.
“The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters,” Stevens wrote. “Photo identification cards are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. Voting is equally important.”
At the press conference, Courtney Scott, a Shaw University student and Georgia resident, said she did not want to declare residency in North Carolina. Requiring out-of-state college students like her to get a North Carolina driver’s licenses could prevent them from going to the polls. She said the cost of getting to the DMV could mean a decision between voting and buying dinner.
“We spent a century trying to make being a citizen in this country simple,” Scott said. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put a stop to all those hassles of voting that African-Americans had to go through.”
Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, argued that voter fraud in North Carolina is so rare it was not worth the expense of instituting a voter ID law. He said the law would be an unfunded mandate from the state to local governments.
“Voter ID laws are going to cost in order to implement them, if they’re going to be effective and not just a fig leaf,” Hall said.
Rep. William Current, R-Gaston, disagreed. Current, a primary sponsor of last session’s bill, said in communicating with county elections boards, many have suggested an ID requirement could relieve some of the expense of holding elections. Since this session’s bill had not yet been filed at press time, there is no official fiscal note.
At the center of the debate over cost are estimates of the number of registered voters who don’t carry government issued identification. The State Board of Elections estimated anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million registered voters do not have records at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The board’s survey did not, however, account for those with military IDs, passports, or other forms of government ID.
“I’m getting to where I don’t know whether to believe numbers or not,” Current said. “I think people just reach up into the sky and get whatever suits them.”
Both sides agree it’s essential to protect the integrity of elections. They disagree on how to do it. “The security of the ballot in North Carolina is of crucial importance,” Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said during the news conference. A photo ID is not the answer, however. “Our state has tough felony level penalties for folks who try to tamper with our ballots,” Martin said.
Even so, Current says he thinks people look for ways to vote fraudulently. “I just know that there’s a lot of hanky-panky going on,” Current said. “I just think there ought to be voter identification before anybody casts a ballot.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains records of the 27 states requiring identification before casting a ballot. Eight states require photo IDs at polling locations. The other 19 require some form of government-issued ID.
Anthony Greco is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.