With the first super majority the Republican Party has seen in the North Carolina General Assembly in over a century and the lack of a Democratic veto power in the Governor seat, the state is sure to see a change in its political agenda and legislation in the coming years. Among the proposed legislation, one hot topic in particular has been Bill 589, otherwise known as the Voter ID Bill.
The Voter ID Bill was proposed on April 4, 2013, and is a more lenient version of a similar bill that was proposed two years ago but was vetoed by Democratic Governor Bev Perdue. If passed, the proposed law would take effect in 2016 and would require each voter to present a form of photo identification before casting a vote at any polling station in North Carolina. Specifically, voters would need to show one of eight government-issued forms of photo identification or a tribal ID card that was issued or expired no more than 10 years ago, whichever is later. College students would be allowed to submit a UNC system or community college student ID, and senior citizens over 70 would be able to submit expired driver’s licenses.
Those who do not present a photo ID would still be able cast a provisional ballot, but they would be required to return and show an ID before the county board canvasses votes in order for the vote to be counted. Voters without driver’s licenses could obtain a voter non-operator ID from the Division of Motor Vehicles. Legislators estimate that this measure would cost around $10 per person. However, if a voter signed documentation declaring that paying the cost would present him or her with a financial hardship, the state would cover the cost.
The bill would not require a photo ID for absentee ballots. However, an official form would be developed with the passage of the law that would require a person to provide a driver’s license, and the number of a DMV non-operator’s photo ID or Social Security number in order to obtain an absentee ballot.
In order to facilitate the change, Bill 589 would create a board called the Voter Information Verification Agency comprised of 14 employees who would work with county voting authorities to help educate voters in the transition, assist in obtaining IDs for voters, and perform voter outreach projects. Additionally, the bill directs the state Board of Elections to study the possibility of creating a statewide digital database of photographs that would include facial recognition software.
This voter ID bill is part of a larger battle brewing in the General Assembly over election issues in general. Democrats are pushing bills they claim would make it easier for people to vote, including online voter registration, declaring Election Day a holiday, and taking measures to safeguard weekend voting. Meanwhile, Republicans have proposed bills to shorten the early voting period, halting voting on the same day a person registers and abolishing Sunday voting.
Proponents of the Voter ID bill such as House Speaker Thom Tillis claim that there are reasons to support the bill other than prevention fraud. “We call this restoring confidence in government,” Tillis said, “There are a lot of people who are just concerned with the potential risk of fraud.” Tillis also noted that if passed, the law “would make nearly three-quarters of the population more comfortable and more confident when they go to the polls.”
On the other hand, the bill has also been faced with some serious opposition. Even before the bill was formally introduced in the General Assembly, members of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP gathered in Raleigh in late March to show their criticism of the bill. NAACP President Rev. William Barber called the bill an attempt at voter suppression, and said if passed, the bill may cause the elderly, the poor, and some students without identification to lose their vote- all in the name of voter fraud, which he does not believe is a problem in the state.
Since then, others have voiced their opposition to the bill as well, and have called its constitutionality into question. Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina claims the measure would amount to a poll tax, which is forbidden under the Twenty-Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and must be challenged. He added that the lack of clarity in defining “financial hardship” that would offer a voter an ID free of charge, coupled with the penalty of perjury for misrepresenting that fact, will deter citizens from voting. “It’s a criminal penalty that you’re putting yourself at risk of,” he said, “I don’t think people are going to do that.”
While Jeanette Doran, executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, admits that the likely legal challenge following the passage of the law “would be a lot smoother” without requiring the sworn statement, she does not think the clause is unconstitutional. She said that requiring those with the means to pay does not amount to a poll tax. “They’re simply asked to produce . . . a photo ID for which they’d have for a variety of purposes,” she explainsed, “There is no charge for the act of voting, which is a poll tax.”
Doran expects those who challenge the legislation will do so on the basis of both the state and federal constitution, pointing out the state constitution’s guarantee of “free” elections. However, she does not expect that a court would interpret North Carolina’s bill as interference with this clause. “That means free of intimidation or coercion,” Doran explained, “It’s not free in terms of dollars-and-cents concept.”
In Crawford v. Marion, the United States Supreme Court upheld a similar voter ID law in Indiana, emphasizing that the measure did not amount to a poll tax. However, the majority’s analysis focused heavily on the fact that Indiana offers voter IDs free of charge.
This past Wednesday, the N.C. House held a public hearing regarding the bill in which citizens were invited to address the House Elections Committee. While over 100 people signed up to speak, many did not appear. The House is expected to vote on the bill on either April 22 or 23, but the debate over the law will likely remain in the headlines well after the vote. As for citizens of the state, a poll taken by Elon University this past February found support for the bill at approximately 72 percent statewide, with more than half of Democrats and 92 percent of Republicans in support of Voter ID laws.