News: CJ Exclusives

Hometown Debate Series panelists take up amendment to require voter ID

Participants pose after a debate on a proposed photo ID amendment to the N.C. Constitution, hosted in Washington, N.C. by the N.C. Institute of Politics. From left to right: Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton; Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett; Spectrum News host and moderator Loretta Bonita; Civitas Institute president Donald Bryson; and Southern Coalition for Social Justice director Kareem Crayton. (Photo by Will Rierson).
Participants pose after a debate on a proposed photo ID amendment to the N.C. Constitution, hosted in Washington, N.C. by the N.C. Institute of Politics. From left to right: Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton; Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett; Spectrum News host and moderator Loretta Bonita; Civitas Institute president Donald Bryson; and Southern Coalition for Social Justice director Kareem Crayton. (Photo by Will Rierson).

WASHINGTON. N.C. — A proposed constitutional amendment requiring a photo ID to vote has sparked controversy in state politics.

The amendment, which will appear on the November ballot, represents a second attempt at enacting photo ID rules for state voters. An earlier law that required photo ID was struck down in 2017 by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Four political veterans debated the amendment here Wednesday, Oct. 3, in the second of the four-part Hometown Debate Series hosted by the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership.

The panels consisted of two legislators and two policy experts.

State Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Civitas Institute president Donald Bryson spoke in support of the amendment. N.C. Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, and Kareem Crayton, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, spoke in opposition.

Lewis said requiring photo ID would help prevent voter fraud.

“I could introduce myself as Donald Bryson to a person at a Wake County polling site, and that person would have no way to know, or even to ask, if I was telling the truth,” Lewis said. “It just makes sense to be able to show a photo ID to verify that you are who you say you are.”

Smith said North Carolina already has voter identification, though the state’s current voter registration card doesn’t include a photo of the registered voter.

“To require a photographic ID or photo before you can vote disenfranchises thousands of voters,” Smith said. “It’s an unfair process, and we should be encouraging people to participate in their right of citizenship, and that is to be able to vote.”

Bryson said Civitas Institute polling finds North Carolina voters appear to broadly support requiring a photo ID to vote.

Crayton echoed Smith’s statement that North Carolina already has a voter registration and identification process. He said passing the amendment would mean trusting lawmakers to implement it and was different from supporting the general concept of voter ID.

“We’ve had enough evidence of this legislature violating the law to make us very careful and wary of giving them a blank check to do the stuff here,” Crayton said.

Smith and Crayton said requiring photo ID would disproportionately affect African-American voters, some of whom don’t have driver’s licenses, which are the most common form of identification. They asked why a bureaucratic process was needed to mandate IDs and how it would work.

“We also have to show that we’re going to give 100 percent effort to making sure these IDs can be acquired by those who cannot acquire these IDs themselves, and that’s just not a part or component of this constitutional amendment,” Smith said. “I dare say that there’s no intention to make it easy for people to get this ID.”

She and Crayton said there were far fewer instances of voter fraud than disenfranchisement in the state. Smith cited a Democracy North Carolina study that says African-Americans were disproportionately affected by the original photo ID requirement, which only affected the 2016 primaries.  

Bryson said it was impossible to determine the level of voter fraud in the state because no description is taken of those who try to vote.

Smith suggested Russian meddling posed a bigger threat to the integrity of North Carolina elections than domestic voter fraud due to lack of identification.

Lewis dismissed the idea that the Russians could hack the vote-counting system and said photo ID is a simple concept.

“The focus is, should you be able to show a photo ID that says you are who you say you are?” Lewis said. “That’s the question that we’re going to ask the voters to answer.”

Lewis said if the amendment is passed the legislature would construct a law to implement photo ID that withstands legal scrutiny. He’s not sure it would happen during the lame duck 2018 session or next year.

In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law in 2013 dealing with the regulation of elections. The law included a photo ID requirement to vote, and the state specified several forms of acceptable identification. Photo ID was required during the 2016 primary elections, before the law was overturned later that year. Federal judges ruled the legislature acted with discriminatory intent.

Wednesday’s debate was held at the Turnage Theatre and recorded by Spectrum News. Spectrum senior political reporter and host Loretta Boniti moderated. The debate will appear online in its entirety and in an edited form to be broadcast 11:30 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 7, and again at 8:30 p.m. on “In Focus With Loretta Boniti.”

The N.C. Institute of Political Leadership is a nonpartisan organization that since 1988 has worked to train leaders for public service in North Carolina.

Series sponsors for the 2018 Hometown Debates include North Carolina’s Electric cooperatives, the N.C. Sheriffs Association, and the John William Pope Foundation.

Two debates on proposed constitutional amendments remain for the fall 2018 series. Both will start at 7 p.m. and are open to the public:

  • Board of Elections, Oct. 9, at the Clayton Center in Clayton     
  • Income tax cap, Oct. 16, at the Gastonia Conference Center