Should North Carolina voters be required to present photo identification cards at the polls? A move to make that highly charged change, which would alter long-established practices for no particularly good reason, is coming to a head.
Yesterday, the state House Elections Committee gathered public comments on the issue, and a bill recently filed in the legislature - "An Act to Restore Confidence in Government" - spells out how a photo ID requirement would work. In short, counties would have to make special voter identification cards available, free, to anyone lacking a conventional photo ID such as a driver's license. Without an authorized photo ID, the most a voter could accomplish on Election Day would be to cast a provisional ballot.
This stands in stark contrast to the state's longstanding practice of having registered voters announce their names and addresses at the polling place and sign in, under penalty of a federal felony for misrepresentation. That system, which treats voters as adults and community members, has produced vanishingly few verified incidents of fraudulent voting. So what drives the impulse to require government-issued IDs in order to vote?
Republicans, who are House Bill 351's sponsors, have convinced themselves that there's a big problem. Tellingly, concern over the issue arose in recent years with the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico. These folks, it's assumed, surely would vote Democratic if they voted. Therefore, North Carolina must have a voter fraud problem - and a need to Restore Confidence in Government. (The bill includes other election-related changes, some sensible, such as barring payment to workers who sign up new voters in registration drives.)
The near-certain results of imposing a photo ID rule are longer lines at the polls for everyone and the imposition of a barrier - how high, no one knows - to participation in our democracy by some otherwise qualified voters who will now have to take an extra step in order to continue voting. This is a move back toward the days of a more restrictive voting franchise - days we should not look back on with pride. And by the way, IDs can still be faked.
There's another election-related issue in the news, one the legislature might well find the time to take up. The state Supreme Court ruled last week that North Carolina's stringent requirements for "ballot access" - that is, the number of petition signatures, or votes at the latest election, that it takes for a political party to get on the ballot - are constitutional, justified by a legitimate desire for orderly voting.
The court ruled in a case brought by the N.C. Libertarian Party and the Green Party, which said the state makes it too hard for them to get their candidates listed. It was reasonable for the justices to find the ballot-access rules legitimate, but you don't have to lean Libertarian or Green to see those parties' point. Now that the constitutional issue is settled, nothing prevents legislators from cutting back the requirements so that North Carolina, rather than being one of the toughest states for ballot access, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. That would be fairer to all.