RALEIGH — The politically volatile issue of whether North Carolina should require voters to have photo identification brought an overflow crowd and emotional testimony to the legislature Tuesday.
At a public hearing conducted by the House Elections Committee, nearly 100 people argued over whether such a step would ensure election integrity or was an effort to disenfranchise voters.
The majority of speakers criticized the proposal, arguing there was little voter fraud in the state and that requiring photos would be an obstacle to voting for those without drivers licenses. They also argued it would cost the state money.
As many as 1 in 10 voters may not have a valid, state-issued photo ID, said Sarah Preston, policy director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. That is 600,000 North Carolinians who could be prevented from voting under a strict photo ID law.
Speakers in favor of a voter ID law said the requirement would increase public confidence in elections and that fraud is more widespread than statistics show. They also argued that ways can be found to provide photo identification at no cost to voters without hurting voter turnout.
Its not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, said Al Bolton, the Guilford County Republican chairman. Its a common-sense issue to ensure that your vote counts. I will make a commitment to help people who dont have a photo.
Several supporters said getting a photo ID would also help people get services unconnected to voting.
The public hearing put the deep polarization of American politics on display. Opponents saw only bad faith on the part of backers of a voter ID law efforts to gain short-term political advantage for Republicans or hold down African-Americans after recent gains.
Supporters seemed confounded about why something as common as a photo ID should be so controversial especially when it could increase voter confidence.
Opponents called the law a crime and compared it to Jim Crow laws of the segregated South in the early to mid-20th century. Supporters said people must be dumb if they had difficulty getting a photo ID and that it was needed so illegal and subversive socialists dont vote.
4 hours of testimony
The public hearing, which stretched for four hours, packed a committee room and an overflow room.
Some form of voter ID is all but certain to become law. The Republican legislature passed a photo ID bill in 2011 only to have it vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat. But Republican Gov. Pat McCrory campaigned in support of a voter ID bill last fall and has said he would sign such legislation.
Opponents said even if the bill passes, they plan to fight it in the courts.
If we lose in the legislature, we will fight in the courts because they (the laws) are un-American and because they are unconstitutional, said Katie OConner, staff attorney for the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights group that has fought voter ID laws in such states as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
One compromise has been offered by Senate Democrats; it would allow people without a drivers license to have their photograph taken at the polling place.
No voter ID bill has yet been introduced, so those commenting could only comment on the concept and on past bills. The House Elections Committee plans to hear from experts on the issue before introducing a bill and voting on it in the coming weeks.
The Rev. William Barber, the president of the state NAACP, compared the voter ID issue to the civil rights movement of the 1960s; he said requiring a voter ID was comparable to the old poll tax that was used in the early part of the 20th century by white supremacists to keep blacks from voting. That is because, he said, it would cost voters money to get birth certificates and other documents if they did not have drivers licenses.
Republican supporters of the voter ID said the intent was that a law would not cost voters any money.
Memories of registration
Some of the testimony was emotional.
Rosanell Eaton, 91, recalled that at age 18 she hooked up a mule and wagon and went to the Franklin County seat to register to vote. She said she was required to stand up straight and recite the U.S. Constitution. After performing the task, she was allowed to register that day in 1939.
She spoke against the voter ID law.
It has become very burdensome and shocking what we are going through in this state, Eaton said.
But Jay Delancy of the Voter Education Project urged lawmakers not to fall for sob stories. He said there was a vast left-wing conspiracy to pad the voting roles with non-U.S. citizens and other ineligible voters.