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After emotional debate bill requiring photo IDs to vote is approved by House committee

By Rob Christensen
rchristensen@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH Legislation to require voters to show a photo ID began moving through the state House Wednesday, after a debate that touched on some of the most sensitive subjects in politics – vote stealing, race, newly arrived Hispanic voters, and voter suppression.

The House Election Committee, in a party-line Republican 23-11 vote, passed a bill requiring voters to produce a government-approved photo ID before being allowed to vote in the 2016 election . But poll workers would begin asking for photos on a voluntary basis next year in a trial basis under the bill.

The measure heads to the House floor next week – after several quick stops in two other House committees – before going to the Senate.

The House committee vote capped months of public hearings, marches, rallies, conversations on talk radio and letters to the editors as the Republican-controlled legislature moved to fulfill a campaign promise to pass a voter ID bill.

Republicans called the bill a common sense precaution against voter fraud, in an age when identity fraud is common, when fewer poll workers personally know voters, when hundreds of thousands of Hispanics have moved into the state, many without legal status.

“State-wide polls are pretty obvious that the people of North Carolina favor it by at least 3-1,” said Rep. Bert Jones, a Reidsville dentist and a Republican. “I can assure you that people I represent are for this bill. ... I want to live in a society and a nation and a state that respects the dignity and the importance of voting and I believe that is what this legislation intends to do.”

But Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democratic attorney from Durham and the first black U.S. Attorney from the South, said the measure violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution because it created different classes of voters – those with photo identification and those without. He predicted North Carolina would spend large sums defending it in court.

“What problems have we had with voting in this country that is based on liberty and freedom?” Michaux asked. “None. We haven’t had any problems in North Carolina. And yet you are putting road blocks in the way of people who want to exercise that right. That is a right that is guaranteed by both the North Carolina Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.”

Debate emotional

The Republicans defeated a series of amendments offered by Democrats that would have altered the bill.

Some of the debate was emotional. Rep. Evelyn Terry, a Democrat and community activist from Winston-Salem, told of accompanying her mother and her grandfather to vote and repeatedly being turned away in the early 1950s in Forsyth County. The two eventually learned to recite parts of the Constitution to meet the requirements of the registrar.

“We went back any number of times to that place in Forsyth County but we were not allowed to vote, dressed in our fine clothes,” Terry said. “My granddad was an Abraham Lincoln Republican and my mother was a Yellow Dog Democrat. That picture is so vivid in my mind. We made so many trips until he was able to recite everything in that Preamble as well as several things in the Constitution.

But Rep. Michael Speciale, a Republican and retired Marine from New Bern, said the bill had nothing to do with race or voter suppression. He said this bill was about “making sure you are an American citizen and you are eligible to vote and you are who you say you are.”

“Let’s be an adult about this people and discuss this in an adult manner and stop trying to debase the issue,” Speciale said of all the talk of race.

Statistics called overblown

Jones said statistics from other states show that concerns about voter ID requirements driving down voter participation were overblown. In Georgia, for example, only 29,000 free IDs have been issued since their law was passed in 2007 – not the hundreds of thousands that critics had predicted.

Each side offered their own version of the facts. The Democrats noted that the State Board of Elections had found very few cases prosecuted in North Carolina for voter fraud, especially the kind that voter IDs would address. For some of the Republicans, that only seemed to prove that local officials were not vigilant – and they noted a number of people at a public hearing last week who said they personally witnessed voter fraud.

Several Republicans expressed disappointment that the voter ID bill was not as strict as the one passed by the legislature in 2011 but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

“To me, compared to last session, this bill is watered down,” said Rep. Frank Iller, a retired businessman from Oak Island and a Republican.

The bill would allow persons who did not have a photo ID to cast a provisional ballot and to have their vote count if they could produce a valid photo later. Besides drivers licenses, the bill would accept many other government-issued photo cards, including out-of-state licenses and student ID cards from state-supported campuses. For seniors, if they have a valid ID at age 70, that ID would remain valid for the rest of their lives.

Driver’s licenses that had expired up to 10 years previously would be accepted. Free photo IDs would be provided to those who claim financial hardships.

The bill would include $4 million to fund the program, which sponsors said was probably more than it would cost.

Christensen: 919-829-4532
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