RALEIGH North Carolina lawmakers are poised to approve one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the nation, curtail early voting, and limit voter registration efforts under a Republican-crafted bill that expanded Tuesday to include a far-reaching rewrite of the state’s election laws.
The measure crystallizes a legislative term in which Republicans flexed their unprecedented political muscle to shift the state’s political compass, and ensures that the session ends with a bitter partisan fight that will draw more national scrutiny.
The bill’s sponsors say the measures are needed to restore integrity to the state’s elections, despite statistics showing little verified voter fraud. Democrats say the legislation is a thinly veiled attempt by the state’s ruling party to cement its advantage for future elections, rammed through the legislature in the final days of the session.
The full Senate is expected to approve the measure Wednesday and send it to the House, where Speaker Thom Tillis said it would pass. Earlier this year, the House approved legislation requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, but it allowed state-issued college IDs and didn’t include most of the other voting limits. The Senate’s version is more restrictive and expansive.
The bill cuts early voting by a week, repeals same-day voter registration, allows counties to limit Sunday voting, halts pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and ends straight-ticket voting.
Among the other provisions, the bill:
• Increases the maximum donation to political candidates from $4,000 to $5,000, with future increases indexed to inflation.
• Allows political parties to use unlimited corporate donations to pay operation expenses for the first time.
• Limits disclosure of money spent by outside political groups.
• Outlaws electronic voting machines that don’t produce paper ballots.
Another part of the bill would move North Carolina’s May presidential primary to a week after South Carolina if South Carolina votes before March 15, which is widely expected. Such a move may open North Carolina political delegates to sanctions from the national party. It also will create two primaries in presidential years – the primary for state offices would remain in May – increasing the cost to taxpayers.
“What we have before us is a reform of an outdated, archaic election code,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, a Charlotte Republican leading the effort.
He emphasized that many provisions, such as the photo ID measure, would not take effect until 2016, allowing time for voters to adapt. “It re-establishes a confidence in our election process, and therefore our government,” Rucho said.
Senate leader Phil Berger said the bill is a response to complaints about a lack of uniformity in a system where local counties set different early-voting periods. “We are just trying to look at where we are with some of the problems we’ve had … and make improvements,” he said.
The changes to early voting garnered the most attention during a nearly two-hour debate in the Senate Rules Committee, which approved the measure on a voice vote after vociferous opposition from the public.
More than 900,000 ballots – out of the 2.6 million early votes – were cast in the first week of the 2012 general election. About 100,000 voters took advantage of same-day registration at early-voting locations. In both cases, registered Democrats represented half those votes – drawing complaints during Tuesday’s debate that Republicans were trying to limit those votes while not imposing equally tough restrictions on mail-in absentee ballots, a population that favors their party.
Taken together, the bill’s critics worry the provisions would lead to long voting lines, like those that crippled the Florida election in November and forced Republican lawmakers there to restore the longer hours earlier this year.
An advocacy group that opposes the Republican legislative agenda decorated the front lawn at the statehouse with 200 pink flamingos Tuesday to draw comparisons to Florida.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure that voting is not a two-hour burden on somebody,” said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat worried about long lines at the polls. “They ought to be able to do their civic duty.”
By limiting the length of early voting, Rucho said, he hopes to encourage counties to open more early-voting election sites and streamline the voting process. The bill also includes a study to look at ways to reduce overcrowding at precincts. “We don’t believe it will be a problem,” Rucho said.
Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina, an election advocacy group, said the measures, particularly early-voting limits, appear aimed at limiting Democratic support and disenfranchising minority, working-class and young voters.
“This is political bullies rigging the election system for their own self-interest,” he said.
The voter ID measure would become the nation’s strictest, he said, and called the additional election measures tucked into the latest version of the bill “unconscionable.”
The state’s NAACP chapter promised a legal challenge if the bill becomes law and a national civil rights group called it the “single worst bill we have seen introduced” in the nation.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Ely Portillo contributed to this report.
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