Tuesday, 11 February 2020 14:23

North Carolina leaders debate voter-ID laws

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RALEIGH — More than a year has passed since North Carolina voters adopted a constitutional amendment requiring voters to present state-approved identification documents at the polls. The General Assembly later passed a law setting the rules for allowable IDs.

But because of litigation leading a judge to block implementation, the rules remain in limbo.

That’s fine with Allison Riggs, who litigated several state redistricting cases on behalf of the NAACP and leads the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Proponents of the amendment strongly disagree.

The amendment took center stage at a Campbell Law Review symposium on voting rights, held Friday, Feb. 7. In addition to voter ID, panelists debated political redistricting, the history of voting rights for African-Americans, voting rights for felons, and voter fraud.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a bill to implement a voter ID constitutional amendment, adopted by 55.5% of North Carolina voters in a ballot referendum. A federal court judge blocked the legislation in December 2019, citing racial discrimination.

Proponents of the amendment cite concerns about potential voter fraud. Opponents, including Riggs, say voter fraud isn’t all that common, and requiring a photo ID creates unnecessary challenges for some who wish to vote.

Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, who spoke on one of the panels, defended the amendment, saying North Carolina voters adopted it in a “landslide vote.” Daniel chairs the Senate’s Redistricting and Elections Committee.

But 55.5% of voters shouldn’t be considered a landslide, Riggs argued. She said the wording of the law was vague, and as voters became more educated about what the amendment would entail, support dropped significantly — from polling in the mid-70s early in the election cycle down to the 55.5% result.

Besides that, Riggs said, the voter ID law mainly addresses voter impersonation. It can’t address those who mistakenly believe they’re eligible to vote because they took their naturalization test and haven’t yet become citizens.

She cited a 2017 N.C. Board of Elections audit showing that only two people impersonated voters in the 2016 election. The audit also recorded 441 cases of voting by suspected active felons who hadn’t completed their sentences, 41 non-citizens with legal status, and 24 cases of double-voting.

Daniel countered that voter impersonation is “difficult to detect.” He cited an instance in his home county, where a poll worker during early voting noticed a man who looked to be in his 20s voting in the name of someone who should have been in his 80s. When the poll worker asked for an explanation, the man said he was voting in place of his grandfather.

Riggs didn’t mention the other effect of enjoining voter ID — removing a requirement that voters requesting absentee ballot forms must submit photo ID. Lawmakers passed that requirement in the 2019 legislative session after an election fraud scandal was uncovered in the 9th Congressional District election between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready.

Even so, the amendment targets racial minorities, Riggs said. It wouldn’t allow IDs from public assistance agencies, for example, documents disproportionately held by minorities.

Daniel said he couldn’t comment on “internal communications” during the General Assembly’s deliberations explaining why the law excluded public assistance IDs. Members simply felt public assistance IDs were less reliable, he said.

Besides, the bill crafters allowed for a wide array of acceptable IDs. Those include driver licenses, non-driver IDs from the Division of Motor Vehicles, U.S. passports, tribal enrollment cards, student IDs that meet the state’s standards, state employee IDs, military IDs, veteran IDs, and voter photo IDs issued by county boards of election.

Riggs also criticized the amendment for not accepting student IDs from particular schools.

But that’s because some schools choose not to qualify, Daniel countered. Some, for example, don’t take student pictures themselves but instead allow students to submit photos for their IDs through the internet.

Other voters face impediments related to physical disabilities, Riggs said. One of her clients, a 44-year-old, biracial quadriplegic, would require special assistance if he wanted to travel to the county board of elections to obtain a photo ID. That transportation would likely cost him $200 to $300.

If all issues surrounding public assistance IDs, school IDs, and reasonable impediments were fixed, asked panel moderator and Campbell Law School professor Greg Wallace, would the voter ID law pass the constitutional assessment?

“I’m not sure,” Riggs said. “The federal court jurisprudence on intentional racial discrimination requires that discrimination to be eliminated root and branch… For a legislature that acts with discriminatory intent, that law must fall in whole, and it must start over.”

Wallace pressed, asking whether a constitutional voter ID law would require replacing the current Republican majority legislature with a Democratic majority.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Riggs said, stating that lawmakers would have to “compromise” with one another and cooperate with a governor whose veto carried “determinative weight.” The voter ID amendment passed in 2018, before Republicans lost their legislative supermajorities.

Requiring an ID is a simple way to combat a “rudimentary” type of voter fraud, Daniel said. Thirty-five states require voter ID, Wallace said.

“Practically you can’t function in American society without an ID,” he said. “You can’t get medicine, you can’t get on a plane, you can’t have a bank account.”