Listen to complaints from the political left, and you might believe that North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly spends much of its time carving a dangerous trail through uncharted public policy terrain. In most instances, those complaints range from overblown to flat-out wrong.
Such is the case with the current debate in North Carolina over voter ID.
Once House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, announced a proposed state constitutional amendment that would require future voters to present photo identification at the polls, opposition cropped up in various forms.
Some critics have screamed “Racism!” or “Voter suppression!” Others have complained about a lack of details in Moore’s proposal. (They might not have read amendment language that explains details will be “prescribed by law.”) Still others scramble to produce examples of people who have no IDs and might struggle to obtain them.
The chorus of concerns has been loud. It threatens to dominate discussion of the voter ID issue. That’s too bad. Cutting through the clutter adds more clarity to the issue.
Any person who has cast a vote in a North Carolina election knows that prospective voters must provide poll workers two simple pieces of information: a name and an address. If the name and address match a name and address in the polling book, the voter can proceed.
Poll workers seek no proof that the voter casting the ballot is the person listed in the book.
The process can prove disconcerting to new voters. That’s true especially for those who have moved to North Carolina from one of the more than 30 other states that already require voter identification. That list includes every other Southeastern state.
Three of our four neighbors (Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia) have ID requirements dubbed “strict” by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Not only do those states mandate identification at the polls. Those without acceptable IDs may cast a provisional ballot, but they must present a valid ID shortly after Election Day. If not, election officials reject the provisional ballot.
In other words, North Carolina is not venturing into new territory. Some type of voter ID would place this state squarely within the nation’s mainstream. North Carolina would shed its status as an outlier among Southeastern states.
Perhaps that’s why nearly 70 percent of N.C. voters support a voter ID amendment, according to a June Civitas poll. Support runs highest among Republicans at 92 percent, but 78 percent of unaffiliated voters also endorse the idea (along with 46 percent of Democrats). Sorting voters by age, those under 35 register the highest rate of support at 75 percent.
For the vast majority of voters, a valid driver’s license offers the simplest option for proving that the person presenting himself at the polls matches the name and address listed in the polling book. But not everyone who’s qualified to vote holds a valid ID.
In this sense, North Carolina is not unique. Other states with ID requirements must address the same challenge. The Tar Heel State can and should model successful programs other states have used to ensure their ID requirements protect voting rights.
An earlier version of this state’s ID requirement called on the government to provide a taxpayer-funded ID for anyone who could not afford the expense of a driver’s license. It’s almost certain that lawmakers would include that option this time.
Even when critics point out potential pitfalls that have not been addressed yet in other states, it’s possible that the solution could prove to be relatively simple.
Take, for instance, a key point from a recent Raleigh News & Observer column written by Gerry Cohen. A longtime legislative staffer who most recently served as special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly, Cohen stakes out a clear position against the current voter ID proposal.
Many of his complaints extend beyond the specifics of North Carolina’s legislation. They apply to any state that employs an identification requirement. Most of those states have conducted elections without major mishaps or voter suppression. There’s no reason to suggest this state couldn’t follow suit.
Yet Cohen offers at least one interesting new wrinkle. “Over 400,000 persons have had licenses suspended in the last three years in North Carolina for failing to pay court fees (which have greatly increased). How would this affect voter ID?” he asks.
It’s a good question. Here’s one potential answer.
Since the voter ID requirement is not related to driving privileges, lawmakers could determine that a driver’s license will serve as a valid voter ID, even if it has been suspended or revoked for driving purposes.
Expanding on that point, this observer sees nothing wrong with the state setting a fairly liberal policy for the use of expired driver’s licenses for voter identification. The previous plan would have allowed licenses to qualify for voting purposes up to four years after their expiration date. It would be reasonable to consider extending that time period.
If a 90-year-old voter never bothered to renew the driver’s license he secured at age 75, the card still might prove useful. If he lives at the same address and still resembles his old photo, the once-valid driver’s license still could work for voting purposes.
But these are issues to address once lawmakers, advocates, and critics — like Cohen — debate the state law that would implement the constitutional amendment.
In the meantime, there’s nothing dangerous or unprecedented about legislators asking whether voters want to move this state into the electoral mainstream. They would be following a clearly expressed preference of the voting public.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.