RALEIGH State legislators are moving toward approving a sweeping set of changes to North Carolinas election laws unveiled Tuesday, which would cut the number of early voting days, require voters to show government-issued photo IDs and eliminate several forms of voter registration.
State Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, is leading the push for the new requirements. He defended the Senates proposed bill for two hours Tuesday during a Rules Committee hearing as necessary to restore integrity to the voting process and prevent fraud.
Critics said the bill will make it harder for the elderly, poor, minorities and students to vote. One critic said political bullies were rigging the electoral system for their own interest.
House speaker Thom Tillis, also a Mecklenburg Republican, said Tuesday that the House is likely to support some version of the Senate bill.
Generally, we agree with the direction the Senate is going, he said.
When asked whether the House would pass a voter ID bill, Tillis said, I believe so.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill in a voice vote, with Democrats voting against the measure. The House and Senate have a dwindling number of days to agree on a final version of the bill. Legislative leaders plan to end the General Assembly session this week.
What we have before us is a reform of an outdated, archaic election code, Rucho said. The bill re-establishes a confidence in our election process, and therefore our government.
Should the legislature pass any voter ID bill, it is likely to face a legal challenge. The N.C. NAACP has blasted the proposed changes.
These policies will be the most race-based, regressive and unconstitutional attacks on voting rights of the citizens of North Carolina that we have seen since the implementation of Jim Crow laws, the groups leaders said in a statement. We will fight and challenge this with every legal and moral tool at our disposal.
The House passed a more lenient voter ID bill several months ago, which includes other acceptable forms of ID such as college student ID cards.
The Senates version adds other restrictions: eliminating same-day registration, cutting the length of early voting by a week, and ending the preregistration of high school students who are 16 and 17 years old.
Rucho said such changes are necessary to streamline the voting process and eliminate fraud. He said the bill will be phased in and wont be fully in effect until 2016, giving people plenty of time to get photo identification. Certain people, such as those older than 70, those who are legally blind, and homeless people, could receive free ID cards.
You cant live in this society without an ID, Rucho said. Everyone has a form of photo ID.
Republican legislators have pushed voter ID laws in other states over the past several years, and the bills have often been challenged in the courts.
In Arizona, the Supreme Court last month struck down a law that required people to present proof of citizenship before they registered to vote. In Pennsylvania, the states new photo ID law is being challenged in state court by plaintiffs who say it would disenfranchise people without identification, such as the elderly.
Progress North Carolinas Justin Guillory blasted the elections bill Tuesday. He noted that Floridas decision to curtail early voting led to massive lines on Election Day, forcing the states Republican lawmakers and governor to reinstate it this year.
Despite warnings, North Carolina is poised to make the same mistakes Florida made, said Guillory, a spokesman for the organization, which opposes much of the Republican legislative agenda.
Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina, an elections advocacy group, said the measures, particularly early-voting limits, appear aimed at limiting Democratic support. This is political bullies rigging the election system for their own self-interest, he said.
The voter ID measure would become the nations strictest, he said, and he called the additional election measures tucked into the latest version of the bill unconscionable.
On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers said the bill could create longer lines at polling places by cutting out seven early voting days.
Early voting days are typically popular in North Carolina. In 2012, more than 200,000 North Carolinians voted on the Saturday before the presidential election, according to data from the N.C. State Board of Elections.
The more we backload the vote, the more youll have on Election Day, said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.
He said that will cause counties to have to open more polling places. What analysis have you done about the impact on lines? he asked.
We dont believe it will be a problem, Rucho said.
Counties can add more polling places to compensate, and reduce voting lines, he said. Counties will be able to add more sites for the same amount of money because the sites will be open for a week less, Rucho said.
Longer lines predicted
Mecklenburg Countys election director, Michael Dickerson, said the proposed bill could lead to longer lines. About 280,000 people in Mecklenburg, or 62 percent of all voters, voted early last year. Thats compared to about 170,000 who voted on election day. Dickerson said election officials would have to buy new equipment and open new polling sites to cope.
Stein also said some 300,000 eligible North Carolina voters dont have photo identification.
Rucho said that he supported eliminating preregistration of high school students because the process is confusing, which he said he saw firsthand with his son before he turned 18.
Did your son not know he was 17? Stein asked, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Although about a dozen members of the public spoke against the bill, the hearing room remained quiet. Sen. Tom Apodaca, the committees chairman, at one point had several people removed after they clapped in support of a speaker.
One unresolved point of contention in the debate is whether voter fraud is a serious problem or not.
Rucho said the problem is widespread and underreported. Rucho said he knew someone in Durham who told him he tried to vote fraudulently several times under other names, and though he didnt go through with it, found it was easily possible to do.
Stein countered that in-person voter fraud is a myth, and said there have only been two documented cases over the past six statewide election cycles.
I dont think your premise is accurate, Rucho said.
State Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, said the bill is a bad piece of legislation.
Its just another example of the Republican Party overreaching, Graham said. Its a solution looking for a problem. (Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer John Frank contributed