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In My Opinion

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Judge, commission make voters priority

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

N.C. lawmakers should take note of a Pennsylvania judge’s rejection last week of that state’s voter ID law. The judge’s words in striking down the measure could have just as well been used to assess North Carolina’s change. Writes Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley: “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election. The voter ID law does not further this goal.”

What judgment the courts will render on voter ID and other controversial changes N.C. lawmakers made in the Tar Heel state last year might not be known for a while. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the trial over the changes, which are being challenged by the Justice Department, the N.C. NAACP and others, won’t take place until 2015. The voter ID law goes into effect in 2016.

The Pennsylvania law, like North Carolina’s, had the same specious origins – evolving from unfounded contentions of in-person voter fraud. McGinley dismissed that notion, writing that the state “wholly failed to show any evidence of in-person voter fraud... The Court does not find in-person voter fraud a compelling interest the Voter ID Law was designed to serve.”

Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was already in effect, and the disenfranchisement of voters was being documented. Though Pennsylvania officials provided free voter IDs, wrote McGinley in his ruling: “In contrast to the hundreds of thousands who lack compliant photo ID, only 17,000 photo IDs for voting purposes have been issued.” Since the 2012 election, fewer than 150 new voting IDs had been issued by the state per month, officials said.

North Carolina similarly has hundreds of thousands of voters who lack voter IDs acceptable under the state’s new law. More than 200,000 women alone have no such identification – double the number of men who have no acceptable ID. Women, it should be noted, represented 56 percent of N.C. voters in the 2012 election. The N.C. law also says free IDs will be provided to those who need them.

Some other key election changes N.C. lawmakers approved last year go against recommendations made on Wednesday by a bipartisan presidential election commission.

N.C. legislators might want to pay particular attention to this one: “In order to limit congestion on Election Day and to respond to the demand for greater opportunities to vote beyond the traditional Election Day polling place, states that have not already done so should expand alternative ways of voting, such as mail balloting and in-person early voting.”

Instead of expanding – or even keeping the same all the alternative ways of voting – state leaders retrenched. The Republican-dominated General Assembly shortened the early voting period and reduced Sunday voting. The political motivations seem clear. More than half of N.C. voters vote early, and the overwhelming majority are Democrats. The N.C. Board of Elections has said that cutting early voting won’t save money but it will create long lines on Election Day.

Those long lines will create a situation which the commission also recommends against: Voters waiting more than 30 minutes in line to vote. In 2012, more than 5 million people across the nation – including in North Carolina – waited more than an hour to vote, the commission said. Amazingly, some people were still waiting to vote when President Obama gave his victory speech that night.

The 10-member panel, commissioned by Obama after his 2013 State of the Union, offered a number of reasonable suggestions to ensure a more efficient system and improved voting experience for Americans casting ballots. Its recommendations ranged from expanding online voter registration to improving voting equipment and technology to fixing problems that hinder the military and disabled from voting.

Proposals such as online voter registration have already been embraced by both blue and red states. Conservative South Carolina and liberal Oregon are among 14 states already allowing it, five more who have passed legislation to do so this year. North Carolina requires voter registration forms be signed by the applicant and mailed in or returned in person. Signatures computer or electronically generated are invalid except “an electronically captured image of the signature of a voter on an electronic voter registration form offered by a State agency,” state law says.

The problems the military and Americans overseas encounter in accessing ballots and voting should have been dealt with long ago. Yet thousands are disenfranchised each year when ballots fail to reach recipients or fail to be returned in time – something that could be fixed by allowing online voting.

Robert F. Bauer, counsel to President Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and Benjamin L. Ginsberg, counsel to Mitt Romney’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, co-chaired the commission. It was refreshing to read their comments about working across party and ideological lines on this matter: “Our aim,” they wrote, “was to transcend partisan divisions and view election administration as public administration that must heed the expressed interests and expectations of voters.”

The voters. Judge McGinley’s Pennsylvania ruling focused on them as well. It’s the right focus. Lawmakers should try paying attention to them too.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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