North Carolina Republicans did a startling and uncharacteristic thing last week: In the face of a potentially unfavorable legal outcome, they gutted a bad provision in a bad law.
No, it wasn’t the state’s abortion ultrasound law, which finally died last week when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take it up. It also wasn’t the state’s same-sex marriage amendment, which is likely to be gone for good in the next week when those same justices decide on the issue for all states.
It was another, very significant law: North Carolina’s Voter Information Verification Act (VIVA), which would have required voters to show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot beginning in 2016.
Instead, lawmakers have overwhelmingly passed House Bill 836, which allows for voters to claim that one of eight “impediments” stopped them from getting a photo ID, including lack of transportation, disability or illness and lack of a birth certificate. Voters then can cast a provisional ballot after providing the last four digits of their Social Security number or some other form of identification such as a utility bill or bank statement.
Nothing in the bill suggests the state will demand proof of the “impediment” unless you are clearly flouting or “denigrating” the photo requirement. So if you don’t have a photo ID, all you have to say is “I don’t have my birth certificate” and that would be enough.
In short, Voter ID is basically dead.
That’s good. Voter ID was never about stopping voting fraud, as lawmakers liked to claim. If Republicans wanted to protect the integrity of elections, they would’ve focused their legislative attention on absentee ballots and voter registration, which is where voter fraud actually occurs.
So why are lawmakers now backing down?
Senate leader Phil Berger says it’s simply because leaders listened to feedback on the 2013 law. House Rules Chairman David Lewis says it’s about being “reasonable.” In a 1,000-word letter Monday responding to criticism about HB 836, Lewis said people shouldn’t be banned from voting if they, for example, lost their wallet or forgot to renew their driver’s license.
Given that Republicans were deaf to those kinds of pleas in 2013, it’s more likely that Voter ID was gutted because lawyers aren’t optimistic about upcoming lawsuits challenging VIVA in both state and federal court.
The state trial, which focused on photo IDs, is now in jeopardy. Not so for the federal trial, which is set for July 13 in Winston-Salem and challenged objectionable parts of the 2013 law. Those include the curbing of early voting days and same-day registration, both of which also were enacted with the simple goal of suppressing the voting power of Democrats.
For now, at least, hundreds of thousands of N.C. voters have one less obstacle to casting a ballot. Who knows, it might even signal a trend of North Carolina lawmakers abandoning costly, losing cases in court. We’d vote for that.