Wake commissioners endorse voter ID bill

mgarfield@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2012 

— A divided Wake County board of commissioners plunged into the emotional debate over voting rights Monday, endorsing along party lines a state bill that would require photo identification at the polls.

The 4-to-3 decision came after a series of heated exchanges pitting Democrats against board Chairman Paul Coble, a Republican locked in a competitive primary for the U.S. House.

Commissioner Erv Portman blasted Coble for running the board “like a student council or a mock legislature.”

“I would hope, Mr. Coble, you would not continue to bring these divisive issues between now and the May 8 primary,” Portman said. “This is divisive. I’ve talked to people who have watched this county board, and they’ve said never in the last 10 years have they seen this kind of stuff.”

Coble and the Republican majority cited the need to combat voter fraud. Coble said a recent Morrisville election decided by a handful of votes shows the importance of preventing possible voting fraud at all levels.

Amid the back-and-forth, Coble noted that political considerations also come into play for Portman, who is running for state Senate.

“We have every right to try to make sure our local elections are fair and free of as much fraud and problems as we can,” Coble said. “It’s perfectly within our rights.”

The voter ID bill marked the final agenda item in a four-hour meeting, and the debate occurred long after a public hearing in which a dozen speakers urged the county to back off.

The resolution expresses support of House Bill 351, a Republican-backed measure that was vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.

Coble, whose name appeared at the bottom of the item, is seeking the GOP nomination for the 13th congressional district against former U.S. Attorney George Holding and veteran and businessman Bill Randall.

The measure would create a “21st century hoop for citizens to have to jump through,” said Jerome Brown, chairman of the Wake County Voter Education Coalition, a group founded by the late civil rights leader Vernon Malone.

“To support this bill would prove to be divisive, deceitful and downright unnecessary,” Brown said.

The issue is “burning passionately in the African-American community,” said the Rev. Earl C. Johnson, who compared voter ID laws to poll taxes from the Jim Crow era.

“Surely I don’t believe anyone on this board would want us to go back down that road again,” he said.

Commissioner James West recalled his days as a civil rights demonstrator and later a community advocate for Walnut Terrace, a public housing complex that became a symbol of poverty in Raleigh.

Opponents of the voter ID bill have said it puts an unfair burden on older and low-income people, who may not drive and who have no other reason to possess photo identification.

“We’re marginalizing so many people who need opportunities to be uplifted,” West said.

Commissioner Tony Gurley said voter fraud benefited Democrats who maintained control of the state Legislature for 139 of the past 142 years, but did not cite specifics.

“I will go to my grave believing there is voter fraud in North Carolina,” he said.

The charge drew a swift rebuke from Commissioner Betty Lou Ward.

“To point your finger at just Democrats is ludicrous,” Ward said. “I cannot believe you said that (while) running for statewide office.”

Among the speakers was Perry Woods, a political strategist known for his work with local Democratic candidates including former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and current Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who is an independent.

Woods said election fraud typically stems from problems with absentee ballots. Lawmakers should consider responding to that problem, too, Gurley said.

“Perry Woods, the premier Democrat consultant that runs campaigns against all of us, said most of it (fraud) happens through absentee ballots,” Gurley said. “He’s the expert. I’ll agree with him. That’s why I say this is just a first step.”

The resolution will be shared with Wake County’s legislative delegation, Coble said.

Even though the effort to override Perdue’s veto failed, the bill was kept alive for another session, meaning the clash on display Monday could be a precursor to a much larger debate.

Garfield: 919-836-4952