Politics & Government

NC legislature votes to soften voter ID requirement

Poll worker Robert Capps, left, watches as Cynthia Toudle, right, inserts her ballot in the voting machine at Johnston County Precinct 10a at the Clayton Fire Station in Clayton on Nov. 5, 2014.
Poll worker Robert Capps, left, watches as Cynthia Toudle, right, inserts her ballot in the voting machine at Johnston County Precinct 10a at the Clayton Fire Station in Clayton on Nov. 5, 2014. cseward@newsobserver.com

Nearly three weeks before a federal trial is set to begin on the constitutionality of North Carolina’s voter ID rule and other election law changes made in 2013, the General Assembly has changed the rules.

The N.C. Senate voted 44-2 Thursday to soften voter ID requirements set to go into effect next year, approving legislation that allows voters without photo IDs to cast provisional ballots.

The House also approved the bill a few hours later in a 104-3 vote, sending it to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

The bill, similar to a South Carolina law that was allowed to take effect in 2013, sets up a process for voters to use a “reasonable impediment declaration” outlining why they couldn’t provide a photo ID at the polls. Voters could claim one of eight reasons, including a lack of transportation, disability or illness, lost or stolen photo ID, or a lack of a birth certificate or other documents to obtain a photo ID.

Voters using the form would provide their date of birth or the last four digits of their Social Security number, or show a voter registration card to prove their identity.

“One of the things we’ve been doing over the past two years is getting feedback,” Senate leader Phil Berger said. “So what that provision represents is some of the feedback to try to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to vote and have their vote count.”

The state’s photo ID requirement is set to take effect in 2016.

Thursday’s change to the rule brought lukewarm support from opponents of voter ID laws and quick criticism from advocates.

“It’s a shame to lose a court case without ever walking into court,” said Francis De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative organization that lobbied for voter ID rules.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, the head of the state NAACP who was arrested on Wednesday while protesting the N.C. voting laws at the N.C. General Assembly, said Thursday “the bill is still bad and racially disparate.”

“These legislators try to distract us from the full bill implications by minimally fixing a leaky faucet but keeping the whole foundations of the bill intact,” Barber said. “The pressure of protest and legal action are exposing their actions and forcing them to adjust. If they were truly interested in change and the tenets of our democracy, they would repeal the entire bill...”

The NAACP, North Carolina voters and several voter-rights organizations have challenged the 2013 ID requirement as one of the most restrictive in the country. They cite other changes made two years ago as attempts to restrict voting, not to expand it. They contend the limited number of acceptable IDs are meant to disenfranchise voters and discriminate against African-American, Latino and student voters who might find it difficult to get one of the acceptable photo identification cards.

The challengers also argue that the curbing of early voting days and same-day registration and the elimination of straight-ticket voting also hit minority voters hardest.

Advocates of the voter ID requirement contend it will prevent voter fraud, though there have been few cases brought or prosecuted in North Carolina.

The lawsuits against the ID provision are pending in state and federal court.

The lawsuit in federal court, which challenges other provisions of the 2013 election-law overhaul, is set to go to trial July 13 in a Winston-Salem courtroom. It’s unclear what effect Thursday’s action will have on the case.

In state court, the challengers have argued that requiring voters to have IDs violates the first article of the North Carolina Constitution. Attorneys for the challengers have argued that North Carolina’s Constitution dictates minimal qualifications for voting – such as a person’s being at least 18, a North Carolina resident and not a felon, unless rights of citizenship have been restored. A hearing on that case is set for Monday in Wake County Superior Court.

The voter ID provision change adopted Thursday was tacked on to another elections bill during a conference committee where House and Senate legislators were working out differences between two versions of the original election bill – neither of which involved voter ID laws.

That meant some legislators saw the provision for the first time when it came up for a vote Thursday afternoon.

“Not having sufficient time to review this document that affects the voters of this state … means that we are not doing our job,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat.

And Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, questioned whether the hurry was due to the courtroom challenges to the 2013 voter ID law. “There’s a lawsuit on this law next month in Winston-Salem,” he said. “Your lawyers have clearly told you that your voter ID law is clearly unconstitutional.”

Berger said Democrats had time to hear from legislative staff about the bill. “We took a recess and had folks give the minority caucus an opportunity to review that,” he said.

Two Democrats in the Senate voted against the bill: Sen. Don Davis of Greene County and Sen. Joyce Waddell of Mecklenburg County. One Democrat and two Republicans in the House voted no, according to the General Assembly website.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said the bill improves the voter ID law. “This makes a bad bill a little bit less worse,” he said.

Some say the action is likely to sow further confusion about what is needed to vote. They contend it could necessitate pushing the ID requirement out at least two more years to give election officials time to properly educate voters.

“We were able to get some small measure of relief for voters in North Carolina that will be implemented immediately,” Rep. Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat and the N.C. House minority leader, said. “We raised significant objections to the timing of the vote and the lack of opportunity for public input, but we did not risk having another election without some relief for voters under the current oppressive voter ID law.”

“The question still remains whether resources will be dedicated to train members of the Board of Elections and inform the public of these new options,” Hall added.

Susan Myrick, elections policy analyst for Civitas Institute, said Thursday that she was caught off guard by the Senate vote.

“To say the least, we were surprised,” Myrick said. The provisional ballot addition, she said, “guts” the ID rule. “It demolishes it,” Myrick said. “There’s no voter ID in North Carolina. It’s over.”

An earlier version of this story failed to note that the federal trial date had been postponed a week. It is set to begin on July 13 in Winston-Salem.

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