RALEIGH — Few issues so starkly divide red and blue America than proposals to require voters to produce photographic identification when they go the polls - a debate that is set to begin this week in the North Carolina legislature.
Republican lawmakers, who are championing the measure, argue that it is a common-sense idea to ensure the integrity of the voting process. Democrats see it as an effort to suppress voter turnout for narrow partisan gain.
"This is the first step toward restoring trust in government," said Rep. Ric Killian, a Republican from Charlotte, who is expected to introduce a bill this week to require voter photo IDs.
"Elections are the beginning of the governmental process," Killian said. "Most people believe there is a void in confidence in government and there is a void in confidence in the election process. Ensuring that a person is who they say they are is a crucial first step toward validating elections."
But state Democratic Chairman David Parker of Statesville sees the legislation as an effort to disenfranchise between 600,000 to 1million North Carolina voters who do not hold driver's licenses.
"Why the Republican Party wants to dishonor the flag and the principles of the Constitution is beyond me," Parker said.
Much of the debate over the planned bill has centered on the extent of voter fraud in North Carolina and whether requiring photo IDs would be a hardship for some voters.
According to the N.C. Board of Elections, there have been few instances of serious voter fraud referred to the district attorney's office for prosecution - 12 in 2002, 37 in 2004, seven in 2005, two in 2006. Voter fraud is a felony in North Carolina.
In 2008, which saw a sharp rise in voting when 4.2 million North Carolinians went to the polls, there were 235 voting felonies, 30 cases of double voting, 23 cases of noncitizens voting, five cases of absentee voting fraud and 16 cases of fraudulent registration forms turned over to the district attorney, according to the elections board.
Like everything else in politics, the statistics are used by both parties to spin their arguments. For the Democrats data is evidence that there is no widespread fraud in North Carolina. For Republicans, it only proves that the Democratic-controlled state and local boards of elections are not catching the fraud.
"I have heard many, many stories about voter fraud," said Killian. "Most recently I heard in Washington County where four dead people voted in a sheriff's race. I believe there are cases of voter fraud, and I believe there are cases that are reported that are not investigated."
Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, said the story, which has been widely circulated in conservative circles, isn't true. The confusion arose over a clerical error, she said. On Election Day, voters pointed out four relatives who had died and who advised poll workers that their names should be should be stricken from the rolls. Their names were inadvertently put in a voter history list file but no ballot was cast in their names.
Francis De Luca, executive director of the Civitas Institute, a Raleigh conservative think tank, said public opinion polls show 84 percent of North Carolina voters support requiring photo identification, which cuts across partisan and racial lines.
"The fact that people think it's needed is a reason why it's needed," De Luca said. "If there is ever a close election in North Carolina it will be assured that everyone who has voted will be who they say they are. It will help cut down on questions about the outcome of elections."
De Luca said numerous trends argue for photo IDs including larger precincts where election officials are less likely to know the voters, and one-stop voting where people register and vote on the same day.
"In North Carolina history there have been numerous cases where there have been voter fraud," De Luca said. "I don't believe it is widespread, but it does exist."
But Democrats say if there is perception of voter fraud in North Carolina, it exists mainly in Republican circles rather than in reality. And they argue that the concern seems to have grown after the strong turnout of African-Americans and young voters for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008.
At a panel discussion on the voter ID bill at Raleigh's Temple Beth Orr last week, Bill Wilson, an advocate for the state AARP chapter, said there were efforts to suppress the turnout in the African-American community in North Carolina back in the 1990s.
"That is clearly the intent here again," Wilson said. "It is hard to say this is to cure a problem when the problem doesn't exist."
Such a law is expected to affect people who don't hold driver's licenses - the elderly who no longer drive, the poor who cannot afford cars, the handicapped who can't drive, and perhaps some young people who don't have a driver's license.
But exactly how many of North Carolina's 6.1 million registered voters would be affected is unclear.
Those without licenses
The State Board of Elections recently matched voter records with those of the Division of Motor Vehicles and found that 556,513 voters do not hold driver's licenses. It also found 329,017 voters whose licenses had been revoked or expired, and 114,417 names where there was not a complete match between the names on the voting and DMV records.
But Republicans say that even if people don't have a driver's license, they have some sort of photo ID. They cite a statewide poll conducted in December by the Civitas Institute of 600 voters that found that 99 percent of those asked said they had some form of photo ID.
A 2008 survey of 2,000 people in three states - Indiana, Maryland and Mississippi - found that only 1 percent of registered voters said they did not have a photo ID. The survey was conducted by the American University's Center for Democracy & Election Management.
Critics say they anticipate problems.
Wilson of the AARP said it would be a major hardship for senior citizens who no longer drive. To obtain a nondriver photo ID from the DMV costs $10 and requires proof of identity such as a Social Security card and a proof of residency such as a utility bill.
At the Raleigh forum last week, George Reed of the N.C. Council of Churches recalled that in 2008, 12 retired nuns from Saint Mary's Convent in South Bend, Ind., were turned away at a voting place in their own convent because they lacked a state or federal photo ID that is required under Indiana's law.
Groups representing young people are also concerned that out-of-state driver's licenses or student IDs would not be accepted.
"North Carolina has a huge population of students who are not from the state of North Carolina," said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan voter organization active on Triangle campuses. "They have a constitutional right to vote there. But they do not have a North Carolina driver's license, or if they do it might not match their exact dorm address."
Wendy Weiser, a voting rights expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said there have been few reliable studies of what impact voter ID requirements have had on voter participation because so many variables affect turnout.
But the requirement is almost certain to cost the state money.
It cost Missouri $6 million the first year, and it cost Indiana $3.3 million, according to the Brennan Center.
The problem, said state Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, is that hundreds of thousands of people without driver's licenses would have to have state-issued photo IDs.
"If you charge people a fee, you are basically creating a poll tax," Michaux said. "If you are going to do it with state funds, you don't know what it's going to cost. Even for the folks where you provide the ID for free, folks are not going to be able to go to the places you go to get them because of their age. "
But Killian, the bill's chief sponsor, said most people should be able to get a photo ID. "It is not the intent of anyone I have talked to to discourage anyone from voting," Killian said. "That is absolutely not the intent."
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