Elections have consequences. In North Carolina, which elected Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and a GOP super-majority in both the state House and Senate in 2012, legislation to institute photo identification as a prerequisite for voting is again on the table.
In 2011, a bill requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification made it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who vetoed it, saying it would “unnecessarily and unfairly disenfranchise many eligible and legitimate voters.” Back then, the legislature did not have the numbers to override her veto. That’s changed. As public hearings on the bill began Tuesday in Raleigh, an eventual bill seems inevitable.
There are, however, complications that have state Republicans treading carefully as they look to change voting rules with an eye on the state’s future — and their own. North Carolina has trended purple in recent elections. President Obama narrowly won in 2008 and lost by just two percentage points in 2012. In U.S. House races, though Republicans picked up seats, largely through redistricting, Democratic candidates actually won 51 percent of the vote.
McCrory defeated his Democratic opponent, former lieutenant governor Walter Dalton, when Perdue chose not to seek re-election. Many Democrats and independents who voted for McCrory, a self-described moderate during his 14 years as Charlotte’s mayor, are surprised at his rightward turn as governor. In a state with a higher than national average unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, the governor last month signed a measure that will cut benefits for jobless workers and reduce the amount of time they can collect. While fellow GOP governors Rick Scott in Florida and Chris Christie in New Jersey reluctantly endorsed expanding Medicaid despite their initial opposition to the Affordable Care Act, McCrory signed a bill blocking expansion in North Carolina.
While voters in polls favor voting ID laws, it’s fair to ask why this particular issue has become a priority. Voter ID legislation is described by its Republicans backers as protecting the integrity of the vote and preventing fraud. Opponents see it as an attempt to disenfranchise traditionally Democratic voters, and point to the low number of reports of voter fraud as proof no new laws are needed. It became an issue in the 2012 elections, as laws to tighten voting requirements from Pennsylvania to Florida triggered protests and legal challenges.
“I think voter ID is what you need to get Sudafed in the stores, what you need to get on a plane, what you need to get many government services at this time,” McCrory said in the News & Observer. But he seemed to be more open on options other than a photo ID. “I do think there will be protections available for people who don’t have immediate access to IDs and there will be ways to do that.”
Republican Speaker of the House Thom Tillis has promised a deliberative approach.
Democrats aren’t convinced. State Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, said in an update from Raleigh: “The ID requirement would discourage students, the poor, older adults and minorities from voting because they are more likely to not have an ID card. We cannot afford to disenfranchise more than 600,000 voters for not having proper identification. Voting is more than just a privilege, it is a constitutional right.” (A State Board of Elections report found that about 9.25 percent of North Carolina’s voters, as many as 613,000 voters, may not have a state-issued driver’s license or identification card.)
Last week, several Democratic state senators filed an alternative to GOP efforts, the Voter Protection/Every Vote Counts Bill. According to the bill’s backers, it “ensures that no registered, legal voters can be turned away from their polling place due to a lack of ID.” A co-sponsor, state Sen. Joel Ford, called it “a cost-effective, common-sense solution to the voter ID debate.”
Debate over the bill is happening as the Supreme Court is deciding the fate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department or federal court approval before making changes in election laws. Currently, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are covered. If Section 5 stands, any North Carolina law would have to pass federal muster.
With the state NAACP leading efforts to fight voter ID requirements, and Republicans promising to pass the law, the battles continue in a battleground state.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3