RALEIGH — Critics of requiring voters to present a photo ID at the polls say the practice would disenfranchise minority voters, and some even accuse proponents of being motivated by racism. They don’t mention, however, that a 21-member bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter, advocated just such a policy in 2005.
The commission, also co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, called voter identification one of “five pillars” that would “build confidence” in the integrity of federal elections. Only three of the 21 commission members voted against requiring photo identification of voters.
“The right to vote is a vital component of U.S. citizenship, and all states should use their best efforts to obtain proof of citizenship before registering voters,” the commission’s report stated. “In close or disputed elections, and there are many, a small amount of fraud could make the margin of difference.”
Far from seeing a photo ID requirement as a negative, the commission said it could become a path to even greater access to the ballot.
“To prevent the ID from being a barrier to voting, we recommend that states use the registration and ID process to enfranchise more voters than ever,” the executive summary of the commission’s report states. “States should play an affirmative role in reaching out to non-drivers by providing more offices, including mobile ones, to register voters and provide photo IDs free of charge. There is likely to be less discrimination against minorities if there is a single, uniform ID, than if poll workers can apply multiple standards.”
The commission urged “procedural and institutional safeguards” to ensure that citizens’ rights are not abused and that no voters are disenfranchised. It also proposed that voters not in possession of a photo ID be allowed to cast a provisional ballot until they are verified.
The voter ID battle heated up in North Carolina last year when the Republican-led General Assembly passed House Bill 351, a North Carolina voter ID bill. Critics in North Carolina, including Democrats, left-leaning groups, and many media columnists and editorial writers, concluded that the bill could only be intended by Republicans to suppress the votes of minority, elderly, disabled, and low-income residents.
A blog post at the website of the left-leaning Democracy NC group said the provision “would mostly affect voters [Republicans] don’t like” and that the issue was “tinged with racism.”
Along with Democracy NC, organizations opposing the voter ID requirement include the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, and NC Policy Watch. These and other progressive groups mounted a vigorous campaign to defeat the bill, accusing conservative lawmakers and their supporters of trying to make it harder for people to vote.
The General Assembly attempted to override Perdue’s veto but fell short. The measure was left open for reconsideration, however, and Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, told Carolina Journal that lawmakers could take up the override in this year’s short session.
CJ contacted several groups in North Carolina that oppose the photo ID bill to see if they were aware of the federal commission’s report, and whether they would characterize members who supported its voter ID recommendation as racist or extremist.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC, admitted that he didn’t think members of the commission were racist for recommending photo ID, but maintained they went along with it only because of the report’s other recommendations, especially those dealing with increasing accessibility for voters.
“Will you mention in your story that the commission supported using the REAL ID card for photo ID, since you conservatives and libertarians opposed that?” he asked. “Are you going to include all the other recommendations, like improving voter registration lists? Are you going to mention the report said there’s been little evidence of voter fraud?”
The commission made a point several times in its report that the level of voter fraud is immaterial to discussions of photo identification for voters. “There is no evidence of extensive fraud in U.S. elections or of multiple voting, but both occur, and it could affect the outcome of a close election,” the report states. “The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters.”
The commission’s members overwhelmingly supported the photo ID provision. Only three of the 21 objected to it: former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota; former president of the National Council of La Raza Raul Yzaguirre; and George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton.
Hall differs with the findings of the commission that photo ID requirements, correctly administered, will not have a detrimental effect on voting. He said that many North Carolinians do not have a government-issued photo ID and cannot afford one, and making voters come back a second time with a photo ID if they show up to vote without one would disenfranchise many honest voters.
Jo Nicholas, president of the League of Women Voters of NC, told CJ her organization opposes photo ID because it would take $25 million to implement in the first three years. She also made the argument, countered by the commission, that such a law is unnecessary because there’s almost no voter fraud in North Carolina.
Moore said cost figures cited by the bill’s opponents for providing free photo IDs to those who don’t have one are inaccurate, and that the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division concluded the cost would be much lower.
Both Hall and Nicholas said the photo ID bill would not prevent the type of voter fraud that occurred in Wake County in 2008. Asked about the video of New Hampshire poll workers handing out ballots in dead people’s names during the GOP primary in January, both said they didn’t think this happens very often.
Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation and a former federal prosecutor who focused on election fraud, said photo ID laws do not reduce voter turnout but they do help prevent fraudulent voting.
“Georgia and Indiana already have two of the nation’s strictest laws on voter ID,” von Spakovsky said, and “all claims made by opponents of photo ID laws today were made six years ago when Georgia passed its bill and none of those claims has proven true.”
In testimony last September before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, von Spakovsky said actual election results in both Georgia and Indiana confirm that voter ID does not hurt minority turnout, since both Georgia and Indiana experienced record turnout in the first presidential elections held after their photo ID laws went into effect.
More than twice as many as voters turned out in Georgia’s 2008 presidential primary than in 2004 when the photo ID law was not in effect. “The number of African-Americans voting in the 2008 primary also doubled from 2004,” von Spakovsky said.
In the 2008 general election when President Obama was elected, von Spakovsky testified that Georgia had the largest turnout in its history, and “Democratic turnout was up an astonishing 6.1 percentage points.”
In contrast, Mississippi witnessed only an increase of 2.35 percentage points, von Spakovsky said, a nearby state that also has a high percentage of black voters but no voter photo ID requirement.
As for opponents’ claims that photo ID is costly and onerous especially for the poor, von Spakovsky pointed to federal laws that anyone receiving welfare or Social Security benefits must prove citizenship and have a photo ID.
Von Spakovsky also considered the claim that a voter ID mandate would not prevent all fraud a red herring. “Putting in only security measures that are 100 percent effective is not a valid rationale for not requiring a photo ID,” said von Spakovsky. He compared that claim to saying screening passengers at airports or installing computer virus software was useless because they don’t work in all cases.
“Well, we just feel North Carolina’s photo ID bill would disenfranchise voters and there are better places to put the money, like education or reducing the state’s budget deficit,” Nicholas said.
Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.