Ned Barnett

Russian election threat grows, but GOP wants more scrutiny of NC voters

Most UNC schools could not meet legal requirements to have their students’ ID cards used for voting next year under the new voter ID law.
Most UNC schools could not meet legal requirements to have their students’ ID cards used for voting next year under the new voter ID law. AP

The motive behind requiring a photo ID to vote has always been thinly veiled. The real intention isn’t to protect the integrity of an election. It’s to discourage voting by people from groups that tend to vote Democratic — African-Americans, Hispanic immigrants and college students, in particular.

Now the investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections has laid that hypocrisy bare. The U.S. intelligence community agrees that the threat of Russia’s interference is real. Studies show the threat of people impersonating other voters isn’t. Yet North Carolina’s lawmakers are pushing to stop the latter and saying little about the former.

Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said last week that no breach of North Carolina’s election systems has been reported by U.S. intelligence agencies. However, he said there may be ongoing efforts to penetrate the board’s computer system.

“We have foreign pings on our network daily. We don’t always know whether the traffic is malicious or routine,” he said. “If the traffic doesn’t meet our security protocols, however, those connections aren’t allowed access and are stopped at the perimeter.”

At the national level, the Republican president who created a failed commission to root out mythical voter fraud isn’t alarmed that Russia wants to twist the outcome of U.S. elections. He calls the threat “a hoax.”

At the state level, Republican lawmakers are pushing a state constitutional amendment that would require that voters present a photo ID. The amendment, they say, is aimed at preventing people from voting in the name of someone else (an offense that’s already a felony). Gannon said an audit of the 2016 vote found only one case of this happening — a daughter voting in her mother’s name to honor her dying wish to vote for Donald Trump. That was one instance out of 4.8 million ballots cast.

If Republicans are so concerned about voter fraud that they want to amend the state Constitution to prevent one case of voter impersonation, they should be apoplectic about a foreign adversary trying to skew elections through hacking and social media disinformation.

Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said, “Anyone with a legitimate concern about election security would not start with voter ID.”

The State Board of Elections is using $10.4 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds and a $519,000 state match to protect the integrity of election results. It is improving the computer security for the state’s election management system, phasing out touch-screen only voting machines in favor of machines that generate paper records and bolstering the state’s post-election audit system.

Those steps will increase public confidence in elections, but the voter ID amendment will have the opposite effect. The debate about the proposed ID requirement will create confusion about what documents are needed to vote this November. That’s the kind of uncertainty that Russian meddlers can exploit on social media. Meanwhile, the vagueness of the proposed amendment leaves voters unable to assess what they’re being asked to approve.

Polls show that most North Carolinians support requiring that voters show an ID. But they may not support the standards the Republican-led legislature will impose if the amendment is approved. Republicans stress that 34 states have some form of voter ID, but only seven have the strict photo ID requirements North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers support.

The voter ID law the legislature passed in 2013 — a law found to be unconstitutionally aimed at limiting African-American votes — was one of the strictest in the nation. A college photo ID or even a state employee ID was not sufficient identification. A passport, a military ID, a tribal ID or a driver’s license was needed. Tens of thousands of eligible voters would not have those IDs and some of those would lack the resources or documents needed to obtain one.

But that was, and is now again, the point. Voter ID is not about securing elections. It’s about securing victories.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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