Point of View

Why NC's Voter ID law is unfair

October 15, 2013 

Since most North Carolinians believe requiring a photo ID to vote is common sense, they may wonder why the US Department of Justice says our new law is illegal. Here are three reasons.

First, voter photo ID is a slogan, not a policy. The policy spells out the details. What if the policy said your photograph must be less than one-year old and the name on your ID must perfectly match your name on the voter registration roll, with a complete middle name? Many ID supporters would call that policy excessive and unreasonable.

Do you know what the NC policy actually says? I bet your state legislator doesn’t know either. The slogan won support, but are you sure the policy is reasonable? If it was only as restrictive as, say, South Carolina’s, the Department of Justice would not be involved.

One example: Polls show 70 percent of North Carolinians think a voter who forgets or lacks the ID should be able to vote a sworn affidavit ballot, under penalty of a felony, and provide a Social Security or other identifying number that can be verified before the ballot is counted. Most states with an ID law have that kind of backup for honest voters, but not North Carolina.

In its details, the North Carolina’s policy is more restrictive than virtually every other state in the nation. That’s why it’s being challenged.

Second, the popular support for the ID created a smoke screen behind which Republicans rammed through a host of other election changes that favor their party, give more clout to wealthy donors, and hurt certain kinds of voters. Many changes, such as repealing campaign disclosure requirements or cutting a week off early voting, wouldn’t even get support among rank-and-file Republicans. But the drama around the ID provided a convenient distraction to add those changes, including several that attracted federal attention.

Republican leaders had clear evidence that certain changes would harm African Americans far more than white, middle-class voters, yet those are the provisions they chose to enact. They had no evidence of significant fraud caused by voter impersonation or out-of-precinct voting, yet they imposed new restrictions anyway. They had more evidence of fraud by mail-in absentee voting, a method used by more Republicans than Democrats, yet the new law makes applications for absentee ballots much easier to get. So fraud or election integrity cannot explain why some voting methods were repealed while others were expanded.

The “why” is better explained by the “who” – who suffers most from the new law’s changes: African Americans were 22 percent of registered voters in 2012, but they cast 34 percent of the Same-Day Registration ballots for new voters, 33 percent of the ballots cast in the first week of the Early Voting, 30 percent of the out-of-precinct ballots cast on Election Day, and 43% percent of the ballots cast on the now eliminated first Sunday of Early Voting. They are 34 percent of the registered voters who do not appear to have a DMV license or NC photo ID, but only 9 percent of the voters who use mail-in absentee ballots, the one method the new law expands.

Given this pattern of selectively cutting the voting options used disproportionately by African-American voters, Justice had to intervene.

Third, it’s true that many other states don’t have options like Same-Day Registration or weekend early voting. But once a practice becomes an established part of the state’s election system – and it boosts participation by historically disadvantaged voters – then cutting that option is the textbook definition of “retrogression” and an invitation for federal action.

North Carolina has a sad history of voter suppression, stemming from the Jim Crow laws adopted by Democrats over 100 years ago that included the poll tax and literacy tests. The parties have reversed roles but the ugliness of this new law is too similar.

The Justice Department has a duty to stop election practices that systematically disadvantage people of color in violation of the 14th and 15th amendments and Voting Rights Act. That’s why it is challenging several of the most restrictive parts of NC’s law, not just the ID policy. Let’s hope Justice prevails.

Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, an election reform organization.

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