The election law changes approved last year by North Carolina’s General Assembly face court challenges on grounds of voter suppression and racial discrimination. However the courts rule, it’s hard not to conclude that the changes will have the biggest impact on groups tending to favor Democratic candidates – racial minorities, the elderly, the young, the poor. Which is why the new rules were so popular at the Republican-controlled legislature.
Although the changes are sweeping, the centerpiece is a new requirement, taking effect in 2016, that in-person voters show a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. The rub, of course, is that some duly registered voters don’t have such IDs and would have to go to a fair amount of trouble and possibly expense to get them. The Division of Motor Vehicles is supposed to provide free non-operators’ ID cards that can be used for voting, but a process that needs to run smoothly could become entangled in red tape.
Even assuming that someone who wants to vote can simply reach into his wallet or her pocketbook and pull out a driver’s license, there’s a risk of polling-place confusion. For example, what if addresses on the license and in voter registration records don’t match? A poll official raising questions, well-intentioned as they were, could gum up the works.
Raleigh attorney Bill Gilkeson, now retired from the legislature’s legal staff, has focused on steps the State Board of Elections can take to minimize polling-place disruption from the ID requirement.
As Gilkeson recounted in a recent opinion piece for The News & Observer of Raleigh, he and two colleagues, Sabra Faires and Larry Reeves, have petitioned the elections board to adopt three clarifying rules that would be consistent with the overall law enacted last year:
1) Specify that the voter’s name as shown on the ID and as shown in voter registration records doesn’t have to exactly match if there’s an explainable reason for the difference. That means a person who registered to vote as Robert and had his driver’s license issued to Bob would be good to go, as would a woman who had used her maiden name to register but has since married and got a driver’s license using a different name. Such a rule would keep voters from being challenged over name discrepancies when their identity, confirmed by the photo, was obvious.
2) Specify that the address on the ID doesn’t have to match the address in voter records. As Gilkeson wrote, “The purpose of photo IDs is to prevent imposters from voting, not to prove voters’ residence. The most common photo ID is a driver’s license. If the license was validly issued and is unexpired, it complies with the law. If it shows an address from which the voter recently moved, that shouldn’t invalidate it. Election officials should concentrate on ensuring the voter records reflect where the voter lives and on getting that voter the proper ballot. They shouldn’t hassle voters about their IDs’ validity because of addresses.”
3) Specify that polling place observers appointed by political parties can’t use their authority to challenge voters’ IDs. Gilkeson explained, “In one place, the new law empowers parties to appoint at-large observers. Those observers may go to precincts all over the county, not just to one precinct as in the past. Elsewhere the new law allows filing of Election Day challenges by any voter in the county, not just by a voter of the same precinct as before. Our proposed rule says those two changes may not be linked to allow roving observers to challenge voters. The statute on observers has long said and still says observers should do nothing to impede the voting process. Their role is simply to observe. Challenging voters is inconsistent with their role and has potential to gridlock the polls.”
By adopting rules of this sort, the Board of Elections could affirm that it intends to see the voter ID law function as smoothly as possible. That wouldn’t negate the fact that the law – billed as an antidote to fraud, although such fraud scarcely exists if it exists at all – is unnecessary and self-serving in a partisan vein. But it would help the board, also under Republican control, demonstrate its own impartiality and be consistent with its mission to oversee elections that are efficient, honest and fair.
Down at the DMV
Another potential trouble spot as the law takes effect is the DMV, which can expect to handle thousands of new requests for non-operators’ ID cards. The division is part of the Department of Transportation, which reports to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. The governor should make it abundantly clear that he expects his heavily promoted “customer service” ethic to cover the process by which those ID cards are issued.
For example, at busy DMV offices in urban counties, people applying for ID cards so they can vote should be given express treatment instead of having to wait along with driver’s license applicants who need to take eye exams and written tests.
In rural counties where permanent offices may be open as little as one day per month, mobile offices should be deployed so residents can get ID cards more conveniently. And the DMV should make sure all of its local offices understand what documents someone must produce in order to be issued those IDs. Already, there’s been confusion on that score, and there’s a risk that some would-be voters could be forced to jump through needless hoops.
It’s almost inevitable that the new election law will cut into the number of votes cast by certain types of citizens. The ID rule will be a deterrent to some people who, even though they’re registered to vote, don’t have a government-issued photo ID and haven’t managed to obtain a card from the DMV, perhaps because they can’t locate their birth certificate or Social Security card. Shortening of the early voting period from 17 to 10 days is likely to affect voting patterns among African-Americans, for whom early voting has been popular.
For all that, how the law works in practice will be influenced by how officials want it to work. Statewide rules such as those proposed by Gilkeson and his colleagues could help make the wheels turn more efficiently. The campaign called Operation Jumpstart the Vote, led by the election reform group Democracy NC and supported by partners such as the NC Council of Churches, sees local boards of election and the DMV as critical links.
Well-intentioned legislators and administrators will see to it that the DMV has adequate staff, facilities and marching orders so that people who need ID cards to exercise their right to vote can obtain them conveniently. Anything less will confirm what critics of the new law have been saying – that it’s actually meant to frustrate voters who might be inclined to vote the wrong way.