RALEIGH — The state House passed a bill Wednesday requiring voters to show a photo ID when they go to the polls in 2016, after an emotionally charged debate that underscored North Carolinas political polarization.
House Republicans pushed through the measure saying that the public demanded more stringent ballot security at polling places, that voter fraud was more prevalent than is understood, and that in a modern, mobile society fewer election officials personally knew voters.
Our system of government depends upon open and honest elections, said Rep. David Lewis, a farm equipment dealer from Dunn and a Republican. Having people prove who they say they are as a condition of voting makes sense and guarantees that each vote is weighted equally and cumulatively determines the outcome of elections.
But the move was strongly opposed by Democrats who said a photo ID would create longer lines at the polls, make it harder for the elderly, African-Americans and some students to vote, and would unconstitutionally create different categories of voters.
This bill would attempt to turn back the strong voting weve had in North Carolina, said Rep. Garland Pierce, a Baptist minister from Laurinburg, noting that the Tar Heel state had the 12th highest turnout in the country last November.
The Democrats promised to challenge the measure in court if it became law.
The bill is almost certain to become law, although it still must pass the Senate. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has said he would sign such a bill.
The modified bill
In the weeks leading up to Wednesdays vote, Republican lawmakers held lengthy public hearings, solicited committee testimony from critics, and softened the bill in some aspects. It is less restrictive than a voter ID bill that was vetoed in 2011 by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
The bill now allows voters to use out-of-state drivers licenses, it allows a two-year period for voters to become educated about it, and it allows seniors to use the same photo IDs they had at age 70 indefinitely.
The Democrats acknowledged the concessions, but were largely not persuaded. As my grandfather told me, When you take a rat and dress him in a tuxedo and put a dash of cologne on him, he might smell a little better, he might look a little better, but hes still a rat, said Rep. Rodney Moore, a small business consultant and Democrat from Charlotte.
The bill passed 81-36 with five Democrats voting for it William D. Brisson of Dublin, Ken Goodman of Rockingham, Charles Graham of Lumberton, Paul Tine of Kitty Hawk and Ken Waddell of Chadbourn.
Accusations of racial bias
The voter ID issue resonated powerfully in the black community throughout the weeks of debate, with African-Americans comparing the measure to historical efforts to restrict blacks from voting. Complicating the voter ID debate are companion election bills being sponsored by Republicans, not debated Wednesday, that would restrict early voting, Sunday voting and same day registration all of which effect African-Americans disproportionately.
Moore recalled how his grandfather, a minister in Pender County, cast his first ballot at age 62, but only after being beaten by young whites when he went to register.
I feel this bill is an attempt to suppress certain categories, Moore said.
Republicans said they were perplexed by the connection between voter ID and race. Rep. Larry Pittman, a Presbyterian pastor and a Republican from Concord, said it was wrong to describe the voter ID bill as racial and said that whites were just as likely to commit fraud as blacks.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, a former District Court judge and a Republican from Mount Airy, successfully got one black speaker cut off when he began talking about the history of the black vote. She said he was off the topic of the voter ID bill.
After the vote, the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, called the voter ID requirement an act of voter suppression.
He compared the North Carolina bill unfavorably to a South Carolina law which allows voters with reasonable impediments to acquiring photo IDs to vote without them. The House defeated such an amendment to the North Carolina bill.
Any time it can be said that North Carolina is more regressive than South Carolina, thats a bad day, Barber said.
Barber was surrounded by students as he spoke Wednesday afternoon outside the Legislative Building.
Students object to bill
Students watching the debate from the visitors gallery had tape over their mouths to symbolize being silenced by the bill. Under the proposal, students attending private colleges would not be allowed to use their student IDs to vote. Students of public universities may use their student IDs.
Democrats had criticized the provision as being unfair to the 89,000 students attending 36 private colleges and universities in the state.
But Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a philanthropic consultant from Charlotte from Charlotte, said the line had to be drawn somewhere, and accepting the IDs from public institutions seemed to be a reasonable place.
Someone point out to me how will these students be prevented from voting, said Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro attorney and a Republican.
Blust said critics of the voter ID bill have responded with exaggerated rhetoric rather than facts. He noted there was an increase in black voting in Georgia and Indiana after voter ID laws were passed in those states.
In court challenges in other states, Blust said, critics of voter ID bills have been unable to produce a single example of an individual who has been prevented from voting.
All the Democrats efforts to substantively amend the bill on the House floor were defeated in party-line votes. One amendment that did make it allows members of the states Indian tribes to use tribal identification cards.
Absentee ballot loophole
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville attorney and a Democrat, said the bill was flawed because it requires a photo ID for voters who show up at the polls, but not those who vote by absentee ballot by mail creating two classes of voters. He said it might not be a coincidence that absentee voting favors Republicans.
Rep. Darren Jackson, an attorney from Zebulon and a Democrat, argued that studies have shown there is seven times more voter fraud involving absentee ballots than there is in voting at the polls. An amendment to establishing more verification procedures for people voting by absentee ballot failed.
Jackson suggested that the new political slogan might very well be: No voter ID? Vote absentee. Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this story.