In its own sad way, it’s fitting that the last acts of the General Assembly’s Republican supermajority will be votes to make it harder for citizens to vote.
Since Republicans took full control of the legislature in 2011, and particularly since gaining a veto-proof supermajority in 2013, it has been a struggle not of Republicans against Democrats, but of Republicans against democracy.
Now, with their supermajority broken by Democratic gains in the November election, the lame-duck legislature is locking in a final impairment to the democratic process. Last week, the legislature passed a law, almost entirely along party lines, filling in the details of a new state constitutional requirement that voters must show a valid photo ID before they can vote. Democrats compounded the damage by successfully adding an amendment that will require that absentee mail-in votes also get new ID requirements.
Making it harder to vote is the wrong response at a time when people feel increasingly unable to be heard as dark money, lobbyists and gerrymandering stifle the people’s voice.
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First, there is no problem with in-person voter fraud. A review of the 4.8 million votes cast in North Carolina’s 2016 election found one instance of in-person voter fraud. However, requiring a photo ID will inevitably block or discourage thousands of people from voting. Second, even in cases of electoral fraud, such as the harvesting of absentee ballots now coming to light in the Bladen County, the response it to better enforce the law, not to place new requirements between the voters and their ballots.
Myrna Perez, deputy director for the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, has fought voter ID bills in Texas. She stresses that narrowing access to voting punishes voters, not fraud.
“The voters have done nothing wrong,” she said. “The answer is tighter enforcement, not new barriers to voting.”
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, likely will veto the new voter ID requirements. And then, in its last gasp, the Republican supermajority will override his veto. But within that exchange will be the start of a crucial push-back against the anti-democratic approach that has marked this Republican era. Under GOP leadership, the legislature has passed more than a dozen unconstitutional laws, has had more than 1,000 Moral Monday protesters arrested, has held minimal public hearings, has barred amendments to the state budget, has tried to change state courts to favor Republicans and has attempted to strip key powers from a new Democratic governor. All this has been done by a legislature that federal courts have found to be illegitimately seated because many of its GOP-drawn election districts are illegal racial gerrymanders.
It’s encouraging to see a backlash against such abuses of democracy not only in North Carolina, but the nation. Leaders of the incoming Democratic majority in the U.S. House say they will seek to restore the clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that was gutted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013. They are also pushing a sweeping bill called H.R. 1 that would expand voting access and reduce partisan gerrymandering. The Republican-led Senate will try to block those reforms, but the momentum for such changes is becoming overwhelming.
On Jan. 1 in Raleigh, the Republican supermajority will disappear and Republican leaders will have to deal with a governor whose vetoes can be upheld. That will be the beginning of democracy coming back to North Carolina. But it’s going to take a whole lot more of it to undo the damage done.