Over and over, we heard North Carolina’s stringent voter identification law, enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2013 over the protests of voting rights advocates, described as simply a “commonsense” measure to deter ballot fraud.
We were supposed to ignore the fact that the kind of fraud by impersonation that a voter ID law might prevent has not been a problem in this state, with only a minuscule number of cases coming to light.
We were supposed to ignore the difficulty that many residents – elderly, disabled, living in remote communities – would face in complying with the requirement that they show a government-issued photo ID before they could cast an in-person ballot.
We were supposed to ignore the bureaucratic tangles making it hard for people without driver’s licenses to obtain a non-driver’s ID card from the DMV.
We were supposed to ignore the plain likelihood that the law would inconvenience or confound some voters to the point where they wouldn’t or couldn’t vote at all – and that those voters would tend to be drawn from the pool that leans Democratic. In other words, even though it was obvious that the ID rule was part of a larger Republican gambit to hold down the votes cast by people who tend to favor progressive candidates and policies, we were supposed to just sit down and shut up.
That didn’t happen. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the N.C. League of Women Voters were among those who not only didn’t shut up but also took their complaints of voter suppression to court.
Along the way, the evidence piled up. There was little room for doubt that specific people who were otherwise entitled to vote would be hindered from doing so under the photo ID requirement scheduled to take effect in next year’s elections.
Then, suddenly, legislators decided that rules they’d portrayed as so commonsensical – blowing off critics as whiners and sore losers – really didn’t make sense after all.
With state and federal lawsuits both pending, and with judges already having signaled their openness to the plaintiffs’ claims that rights were being violated, legislative leaders must have been warned by their attorneys that unless they made the ID rules less onerous, those rules might well be tossed as unconstitutional.
So on June 18, in a surprise maneuver done in such a way that it received little debate, Senate and House leaders engineered significant changes to try to defuse the threat to their law. Approved overwhelming in both chambers, the changes were promptly OK’d by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. (To see the revisions, go to House Bill 836, starting on page 5.)
No photo, no problem
Most notable is a more lenient approach toward eligible would-be voters who lack a proper photo ID and who have an excuse (drawn from a list of acceptable reasons) why they don’t have one.
Such a voter would sign a form stating that he or she had faced a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining the necessary ID – an obstacle such as disability, illness, an inflexible work schedule, lack of a birth certificate or lack of transportation. After providing other data to establish identity, such as date of birth and the last four digits of a Social Security number, the voter would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, to be counted once the data were verified.
Another improvement: For someone who shows up at an early voting site without proper ID, officials are supposed to walk the person through the process of voting by absentee ballot (so long as the deadline for absentee voting hasn’t passed). That’s a nod to fairness, since absentee voters don’t have to comply with a photo ID rule.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger had been a staunch supporter of the old ID regime, which may well have been the country’s strictest. But Berger indicated two years of “feedback” had hit home. The changes were made, he said, in light of that feedback, “to try to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to vote and have their vote count.”
Now that’s common sense. And with regard to IDs, it’s what the former rule’s opponents had sought all along. Although those opponents — mindful that voter fraud by impersonation is very rare, judging by the piddling number of prosecutions, and that someone who tries it risks a felony charge — still wonder why it was necessary to impose a photo ID requirement in the first place.
The reality is that voter ID is merely the tip of the iceberg known as the Voter Identification Verification Act. It has given its Republican architects and apologists, including Gov. McCrory, a veneer of plausibility in their assertions that the act is just a prudent, commonsense antidote to fraud. The changes now in effect could defuse the ID controversy. But they do nothing to address well-founded objections to other aspects of the sweeping law – which was rammed through the legislature shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 watered down key provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act.
Voting, speaking, choosing
The Council of Churches has been outspoken in its critique of the law, in keeping with the Council’s view that equal and ample access to the polls is essential to a healthy system of democracy.
Of course that access has to be well-regulated so as to keep elections honest. But if voters are hindered in making their choices known, they lose the opportunity to have a say, through their representatives, in the decisions and public policies by which they’ll have to live their lives. That amounts to a betrayal of one of America’s basic civil rights. When the rules for voting are tilted against whole classes of citizens – the poor, the infirm, racial minorities still trying to overcome legacies of discrimination – the betrayal runs even deeper.
The 2013 law ventured down that very path not only with its now-weakened photo ID rule but also with its cutback in early voting, its elimination of the chance to register and vote on the same day and its bar against out-of-precinct voting.
Those measures remain on the books, and it’s clear who is more likely to see their vote totals suffer as a result. Hint: not Republicans.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in considering a request last fall to put the law on hold for the 2014 elections, concluded that scrapping same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting would be racially discriminatory because those options have been especially popular among African-Americans.
As it turned out, the Supreme Court thought otherwise and allowed the election to proceed as the legislature envisioned. But that may well not be the end of the story.
A broad challenge to the law is set to be heard in federal district court in Winston-Salem on July 13. That impending trial could have been in Republican legislators’ minds when “common sense” about voter ID suddenly took on a different meaning.
Perhaps they also were hoping to dampen the enthusiasm of voting rights advocates aligned with the state’s NAACP chapter who plan to demonstrate in Winston-Salem as the trial begins. The voter ID rule, unnecessary from the get-go, may have been defanged, but the underlying law still has dangerous teeth.