Point of View

Adding needed clarity to new NC election law

January 29, 2014 

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    Find a link to the petition, explaining the three proposed rules, here.

When legislators passed sweeping election law changes last year, they said they wanted to ensure integrity in the voting process, not suppress votes. But unanswered questions in the law create opportunities for suppression.

It’s up to the State Board of Elections to provide clear guidance to election officials in implementing the new law. To aid the board, I and my colleagues, Sabra Faires and Larry Reeves, have petitioned the board to adopt three rules. We believe those rules can limit potential harm to voters.

The first two concern the photo ID that all voters must present in 2016. The third concerns political party observers and challenges.

1The first proposed rule says the voter’s name on the ID needn’t match exactly the name on voter registration records if the difference is explainable.

Some explanations are obvious: the common nickname Bill for William. Some differences can be plausibly explained by the voter: a maiden name on one document and married name on another. The rule gives other examples.

This rule is consistent with the new N.C. statute, which never says the names on ID and registration records must match. Some election officials might have heard stories from Texas, where the law does say the names should match and may try to apply it here. The rule would prevent that.

2The second proposed rule says the address on the photo ID doesn’t have to match the address on the voter’s registration record at all.

This, too, is consistent with the statute, which says nothing about an address on the ID. The purpose of photo IDs is to prevent imposters from voting, not to prove voters’ residence. The most common photo ID is a driver’s license. If the license was validly issued and is unexpired, it complies with the law. If it shows an address from which the voter recently moved, that shouldn’t invalidate it.

Election officials should concentrate on ensuring the voter records reflect where the voter lives and on getting that voter the proper ballot. They shouldn’t hassle voters about their IDs’ validity because of addresses. The rule would prevent that.

3The third proposed rule says observers appointed by political parties may not use their presence in the voting place to look at a voter’s ID or file challenges against the voters there. (Election Day challenges trigger a mini-trial conducted by precinct officials about the voter’s eligibility.)

In one place, the new law empowers parties to appoint at-large observers. Those observers may go to precincts all over the county, not just to one precinct as in the past. Elsewhere the new law allows filing of Election Day challenges by any voter in the county, not just by a voter of the same precinct as before. Our proposed rule says those two changes may not be linked to allow roving observers to challenge voters.

The statute on observers has long said and still says observers should do nothing to impede the voting process. Their role is simply to observe. Challenging voters is inconsistent with their role and has potential to gridlock the polls.

The law requires keeping a voter’s date of birth confidential. A driver’s license contains a date of birth, so the proposed rule says observers shouldn’t see it.

If you count all election officials who’ll implement the new law, the number exceeds 13,000.

My overall experience with election officials is they walk on water. They work long hours for meager pay to conduct elections in which all voters can have confidence. I was a precinct official myself. Although I exclude myself from the deification, I include all the officials I worked with in my precinct, Democratic and Republican.

But not all election officials walk on water all the time. Some don’t pay enough attention in training. All are nominated by their political parties, and while most set partisanship aside in their official duties, some can’t seem to leave it behind.

For the first time in 20 years, Republicans control N.C. election panels at every level. Consequently, many on the panels are new to the role. Some, I fear, come steeped in rhetoric that demands extreme measures to combat voter fraud, especially in minority precincts.

The new Republican chairman of the State Board of Elections, Josh Howard, has emphasized he expects election officials to maintain nonpartisan standards. But with 13,000 officials, we think he needs the help of written rules.

Bill Gilkeson, an attorney in Raleigh, worked on the General Assembly’s legal staff for 25 years, retiring in 2010.

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