News: CJ Exclusives

Voter ID measure heads to Senate after intense House debate

CJ Photo by Kari Travis
CJ Photo by Kari Travis

Too broad. Too narrow. Too lenient. Too stringent.

These descriptors were tossed around the N.C. House floor during a Dec. 5 debate over a bill which codifies a new constitutional amendment requiring voters to present photo identification at the ballot box.

Fifty-five percent of North Carolina voters on Nov. 6 affirmed a legislative proposal to write a photo ID rule into the state’s constitution. Senate Bill 824, Implementation of Voter I.D. Constitutional Amendment, lays groundwork for enforcement. On Wednesday, it passed the House 67-40, igniting hot protest from Democrats, who will gain traction in the legislature next year when new seatholders upend the GOP’s veto-proof supermajority.

The bill is on Thursday’s Senate calendar for a concurrence vote.

S.B. 824 is a point of tension between Republicans and Democrats. In a debate that lasted the better part of two hours, members of both parties swarmed the bill with laments, comments, and amendments.

Democrats called S.B. 824 a voter-suppression device, citing underprivileged and minority residents who might suffer under the requirements. Several Republicans said the bill was too lax and pushed for tighter restrictions on forms of ID.

The bill offers several options for voters. Driver’s licenses, military IDs, student IDs from community colleges and public or private universities, tribal enrollment cards, state employee IDs, and free, state-issued voter ID cards are just a few examples.

Shorten that list, several Republican members said. Student IDs were especially objectionable to some who said the option will invite more fraudulent voting.

Minority leader Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said the bill is fraught with arbitrary stipulations. There are too many exclusions, he said, questioning why Republicans are shunning public school IDs for students who want to pre-register to vote.

Voter ID has long been a center of conflict for legislators. In 2013, the General Assembly passed a voter ID bill that later was struck down by a three-judge federal appeals panel who called it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”

That bill nixed a week of early voting and cut out-of-precinct voting in addition to requiring specific forms of photo ID.

The provisions targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision,” the judges’ 83-page ruling states.

S.B. 824 is an improvement over that law, but it’s not great, and the legislature should take more time to work out a better bill — not ram legislation through before the end of the year, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.

Cost is a concern, some lawmakers said. A $2.25 million appropriation was added Dec. 4 to implement S.B. 824. It includes funding for the Division of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation to pay for producing new IDs.

Republican leaders insisted their bill is the right one for the state.

“Growing concern for the integrity of our elections crosses partisan lines in North Carolina and across the nation,” said House Speaker Tim Moore R-Cleveland, in a press release. “The people have spoken in support of securing the ballot to ensure every vote counts, and today’s legislation conforms our state to 34 others that have some form of voter ID law.”   

“The bill that left the House is a good Voter ID bill that seeks to secure our elections process while allowing folks to show a broad range of photo IDs to prove they are who they say they are,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, told Carolina Journal.

In a press release issued after the final House vote, Lewis highlighted a provision in the bill which would strengthen security measures for absentee ballots, citing the disputed, too-close-to-call election in the state’s 9th U.S. Congressional District.

The provision requires the General Assembly to set temporary rules by July 2019 and permanent rules by January 2020 for enhanced security of absentee ballots.

“The situation occurring in southeastern North Carolina right now is an embarrassment and an impediment to the integrity of our entire elections system,” Lewis said in the release. “I believe that this bill does start, it’s an important first step, in making sure problems like that don’t arise again.

“It provides for a smooth rollout of an improved system of verifying that votes by mail are in-fact cast by folks who asked for and have been sent the ballot.”

If the Senate adopts the amended measure, it will head to Gov. Roy Cooper, who hasn’t indicated if he will veto it.

Lewis’ office did not respond to a question from CJ about the possibility of lawsuits over S.B. 824 if it becomes law.