RALEIGH The state House passed a bill Wednesday requiring voters to show a photo ID when they go to the polls in 2016, after an emotionally charged debate that underscored North Carolina’s political polarization.
House Republicans pushed through the measure saying that the public demanded more stringent ballot security at polling places, that voter fraud was more prevalent than is understood, and that in a modern, mobile society fewer election officials personally knew voters.
“Our system of government depends upon open and honest elections,” said Rep. David Lewis, a farm equipment dealer from Dunn and a Republican. “Having people prove who they say they are as a condition of voting makes sense and guarantees that each vote is weighted equally and cumulatively determines the outcome of elections.”
But the move was strongly opposed by Democrats who said a photo ID would create longer lines at the polls, make it harder for the elderly, African-Americans and some students to vote, and would unconstitutionally create different categories of voters.
“This bill would attempt to turn back the strong voting we’ve had in North Carolina,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, a Baptist minister from Laurinburg, noting that the Tar Heel state had the 12th-highest turnout in the country last November.
The Democrats promised to challenge the measure in court if it became law.
The bill is almost certain to become law, although it still must pass the Senate. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has said he would sign such a bill.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s vote, Republican lawmakers held lengthy public hearings, solicited committee testimony from critics, and softened the bill in some aspects. It is less restrictive than a voter ID bill that was vetoed in 2011 by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
The bill now allows voters to use out-of-state driver’s licenses, it allows a two-year period for voters to become educated about it, and it allows seniors to use the same photo IDs they had at age 70 indefinitely.
The Democrats acknowledged the concessions, but were largely not persuaded. “As my grandfather told me, ‘When you take a rat and dress him in a tuxedo and put a dash of cologne on him, he might smell a little better, he might look a little better, but he’s still a rat,” said Rep. Rodney Moore, a small-business consultant and Democrat from Charlotte.
The bill passed 81-36 with five Democrats voting for it – William Brisson of Dublin, Ken Goodman of Rockingham, Charles Graham of Lumberton, Paul Tine of Kitty Hawk and Ken Waddell of Chadbourn.
The voter ID issue resonated powerfully in the black community throughout the weeks of debate, with African-Americans comparing the measure to historical efforts to restrict blacks from voting. Complicating the voter ID debate are companion election bills being sponsored by Republicans, not debated Wednesday, that would restrict early voting, Sunday voting and same-day registration – all of which affect African-Americans disproportionately.
After the vote, the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, called the voter ID requirement an act of voter suppression.
Barber was surrounded by students as he spoke Wednesday afternoon outside the Legislative Building.
Students watching the debate from the visitors gallery had tape over their mouths to symbolize being silenced by the bill.
Under the proposal, students attending private colleges would not be allowed to use their student IDs to vote. Students of public universities may use their student IDs.
Democrats had criticized the provision as being unfair to the 89,000 students attending 36 private colleges and universities in the state.
Raleigh News & Observer staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.
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