Commentary

Christensen: College students will have to work harder to vote in N.C.

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 17, 2013 

It is an acknowledgement of my nerdiness that one of my favorite childhood programs was William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” a program that always made one think.

I remember nearly falling out of my chair one day, when Buckley suggested – whether seriously or just to stir things up, I don’t recall – restoring the requirements from the early days of our Republic that one must own property in order to vote.

The idea of who should vote has always been flexible concept. First it was only for white male property owners. Later it was expanded to include non-property owners, blacks and women. Our democracy has always been a work in progress.

Which brings us to the huge voting bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory last week, which not only requires voter ID, but makes numerous other changes such as reducing the early voting period by a week, abolishing same-day registration and ending straight-party voting.

Although billed as an exercise in ballot security, it is also a lesson in Politics 101.

North Carolina had traditionally been a state where few people voted. It was ranked 47th in the country in voter participation in 1991, but rose to 34th in 2000 because of changes in the law to make voting easier. It rose to 21st in 2008 and to 11th in the country in 2012.

North Carolina had the biggest increase in the country in voter participation between 2004 and 2008. But as far as the Republicans were concerned that was a bad thing, because many of the new voters were young voters attracted to the candidacy of Barack Obama. In 2008, 74 percent of North Carolina voters between ages 18-29 voted for Obama, according to exit polls.

When Ronald Reagan was president, Republicans did well with young people, who were attracted to his sunny brand of conservatism and his vision of expanded opportunities.

Some GOP candidates, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have a strong following among young people. But overall, the GOP is doing poorly among the young, in part because they are turned off by the party’s stand on social issues.

No college IDs allowed

Republicans made a major push to win over young voters last year, putting operatives in the state at fairs and NASCAR events, and using social media to tell them how bad the economy was under Obama. Despite their efforts, Obama still won 67 percent of the 18-29 age group in North Carolina in November, according to exit polls.

So Republicans moved to Plan B – if you can’t win over young people, make it harder for them to vote.

The new voter law includes a requirement that all voters show a photo ID before they can cast their ballot. When the measure went through the House, it allowed students at public universities to use their college IDs, but when it went to the more conservative Senate, college IDs were taken out. Some concern was expressed about college IDs not being as secure as driver’s licenses.

As Bob Phillips of Common Cause notes, even states with some of the toughest voter ID laws in the nation, such as Indiana and Georgia, allow college IDs at the polls. But not North Carolina.

North Carolina is rich in colleges; there are more than 300,000 students here, including an estimated 50,000 from other states. In order to vote here, they need a N.C. driver’s license or a free non-driver ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles office.

To get a free ID, the student must show four documents, according to the DMV Web page.

They must provide at least two documents for proof of age and identity: either a valid driver’s license from another state, an original birth certificate or an original Social Security card. They also must prove they have a Social Security number by providing a Social Security card, a 1099 Form, a W-2 Form, a DD-214 form or several other forms. Finally, the student must provide a proof of residency such as a North Carolina vehicle registration card, a North Carolina Voter Precinct Card, a utility or cable bill, a housing lease or mortgage statement, school records or several other documents.

“North Carolina’s new voter ID law would make thousands of young people, many of whom are first-time voters, have a harder time voting and ultimately may entice them to decide, ‘Why bother?’ ” Phillips said.

Difficulties for students

Assuming the student gathers the documents, waits in line at DMV and gets a photo ID card, he or she still might find voting more difficult than in the past.

Take for example the action of the newly installed Republican majority of the Watauga County Board of Elections last week. One of the first things they did was move the polling places and early voting sites off the Appalachian State University campus, even though the move meant recombining three precincts into one with 9,340 voters. The move was taken as 60 people booed and hissed and chanted “shame on you,” according to accounts in The Watauga Democrat and The High City Press.

In Pasquotank County, the new Republican majority on the board of elections voted last week to bar an Elizabeth City State University senior from running for City Council, ruling that an on-campus address couldn’t be used to establish local residency. The chairman of the county Republican Party said he plans to challenge the voter registrations of more students at the historically black campus in upcoming elections and would urge his counterparts to follow suit in college towns across the state.

“I plan to take this show on the road,” Pasquotank County GOP Chairman Pete Gilbert told AP.

Some legislators wanted to go further. Sen. Bill Cook of Chocowinity introduced a bill that would have removed the state income tax exemption for dependents for parents of children who registered to vote at their colleges. That a tea party Republican would back what was essentially a tax increase shows you how strongly some Republicans feel about college voting.

A civics lesson

Nor do the Republicans want young people getting registered before they go off to college.

The voter bill also ends the program of preregistering 16- and 17-year-olds to prepare them to vote when they reach 18. McCrory cited the cost of the program. The legislature passed the original law with bipartisan support in 2009 as a way to get more young people – the group that historically has the lowest voter participation – involved in voting. It required local county boards to conduct registration efforts in the high schools every year and to incorporate such efforts in civics classes. There have been 160,000 North Carolina high school students pre-registered under this program.

This had been a major project of the N.C. League of Women voters.

“Our local leagues have reached out to their prospective high schools and work closely with their officials in conducting a nonpartisan registration event,” wrote Jo Nicholas, state league president, last week. “This is sad news that we can no long work with our students – the people of tomorrow!”

There is one silver lining in all of this. Our young people have been provided a valuable civics lesson in how democracy works.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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