The most confounding and misleading part of the new voter ID requirement is the “common sense” defense.
Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger said in a TV ad that requiring a photo ID to vote “prevents fraud and protects the integrity of our elections – it’s common sense.” Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed the requirement into law saying it was part of “common sense reforms.” At a federal trial in Winston-Salem where the requirement is being challenged, it’s being defended as a commonly used and sensible protection.
Proponents of the requirement, which takes effect with the March 15 primary, say a photo ID is needed to cash a check, board an airplane or even to purchase some cold medications, so certainly it should be required for something as important as voting.
But casting a vote is not a transaction. It does not allow the voter to collect cash. You can’t board the right to vote (though some would hijack it). You cannot cook the right to vote to make methamphetamine.
Your right to vote is not something you obtain after showing proper ID or something you lose if you can’t. Your right to vote is something you already have. It is given to you by the United States Constitution.
Republican legislators say they passed the photo ID requirement to prevent people from representing themselves as someone else at the polls. They’ve shown no evidence that this is a problem, but they love the ease of defending their solution – it’s common sense. Cue the checks, planes and medications.
Behind that seemingly harmless rationale is a subtle and unspoken Republican motive: A surprisingly high number of people don’t have a driver’s license or an acceptable alternative photo ID. And many of them are low-income and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic.
Of North Carolina’s 6.3 million registered voters, the State Board of Elections could not match more than 200,000 voters to a driver’s license. Many of those may actually have a license, but didn’t match because of maiden names and misspellings. Still, it’s fair to assume that tens of thousands of people lost their access to a voting booth when the legislature required a photo ID from a narrow list of acceptable versions. College and work-related IDs, for example, are not valid for voting.
Those without a valid ID can get one for free from the state Division of Motor Vehicles, but that can require locating or paying for identification support documents, some of which don’t exist. It can also involve sending letters, paying fees and sometimes getting a ride to the DMV or a notary. The hassle and expense is a kind of poll tax. When it’s combined with reducing early voting days from 17 to 10 and eliminating same-day registration – both elements of North Carolina’s new law, though the courts have suspended the same-day registration ban – the changes can discourage voters who are predominantly lower-income people of color who, yes, tend to vote Democratic.
Last June, Republican legislators, worried about the legality of the photo ID requirement, amended the law to allow voters who couldn’t obtain a valid photo ID to fill out and sign a “reasonable impediment” declaration form and cast a provisional ballot.
If North Carolina’s Republican legislators were really concerned about bolstering the accuracy of vote totals, they’d focus on improving poll worker training, voter education and voting equipment. They’d also apply photo ID requirements to absentee ballots, which are more vulnerable to fraud but less used by poor and minority voters.
North Carolinians should be deeply embarrassed by the voter ID trial in Winston-Salem that has drawn national coverage. A state that had been a leader of the New South is now defending a retreat to the Old South.
Citing the false threat of voter fraud, legislators are resisting what was universally accepted as a good thing in a democracy – the more people who vote, the better. Voting, a right that all were encouraged to exercise, now is being cast as an action that should be regarded with suspicion and circumscribed by redundant safeguards.
Before the passage of the “common sense reforms,” there were already sufficient protections against in-person voter fraud. People must confirm their identities when they register to vote, and impersonating a voter is a felony. But still Republican lawmakers and the governor say we need this additional layer of protection, even if it means some people will be put through extra steps and expense, the voting process will be slowed and some people will be discouraged from casting a ballot.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and a veteran of the civil rights movement, said the nation should be opening the voting process, not closing it. “We shouldn’t be afraid of the American people,” he said. But North Carolina’s Republican leaders are afraid of something and it’s not in-person voter fraud.
How do we know? It’s common sense.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org