Courts and Law

Needed or not, Voter ID, restrictions poised to pass

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Voter ID is back in the legislature this afternoon as public hearings continue on the merits of bills filed over the last several weeks.

Though not the only voting bill pending in the General Assembly, the proposed voter ID legislation has become the flashpoint for concerns that the Republican majority is intent on making voting harder in North Carolina, particularly for those who could be easily disenfranchised.

Perhaps that’s because it’s the only voting bill for which a public airing has been offered.

Perhaps that’s because it’s the only bill that legislators will be seriously considering. House Speaker Thom Tillis certainly hinted at that last night during an interview with Tim Boyum on News 14’s Capital Tonight.

Or perhaps that’s because it’s the bill, with a ten dollar fee for a voter ID attached, that cuts so closely to an unconstitutional poll tax and strikes the chord of Old South voter suppression.

“The U.S. Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County was very clear,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, referring to a 2008 challenge to an Indiana voter ID law. “If you have a requirement to vote and you charge for that requirement, the court’s going to consider that a poll tax.  No other state has imposed any sort of charge or means test associated with obtaining an ID.”

But the other voting bills should not be overlooked, because if they slide through the back door while voter ID is being debated in the front, voting here will look a lot different in elections to come.

Voters would have to show a photo ID. Without one, they’d have to pay $10 to get one, or swear under oath that they couldn’t afford one.

Voters would have far fewer days to vote early than they have now, and would no longer be able to vote on Sunday. They’d also no longer be able to register and vote on the same day.

Voters who are college students would be torn between voting in their home state and voting where they live on campus—else risk the ire of their parents, who’d lose them as a tax exemption.

Ex-felons would no longer be able to vote upon completion of their respective sentences. They’d have to wait an additional five years and have people vouch for their “upstanding moral character.”

And those adjudged mentally incompetent by a court of law would no longer be able to vote.

One bright spot: The physically-disabled wouldn’t need a photo ID, though they might need help filling out the paper ballots replacing voting machines in some counties.

All of the bills proposing these changes deserve a public airing if they’re to be seriously considered by the General Assembly.

And all of them raise issues yet to be addressed—particularly the voter ID bill, which is being pushed for a late April vote. What are the costs? What are the benefits? And what are the alternatives that can actually change our voting practices for the better?

Fiscal costs

Voter ID should go down as one of the greatest public relations coups in political history: Tell people often and loudly enough that there’s a voter fraud or voter impersonation problem, and they’ll believe it. Yet the facts simply don’t bear that out.

Nonetheless, the majority in the legislature is intent on seeing voter ID through.

For all the talk about fiscal responsibility on Jones Street, there’s been surprisingly little discussion about the costs entailed in implementing proposed voting changes—voter ID in particular, which involves not only equipment and personnel to actually make the IDs but also resources for voter education and outreach as well as a new 14-person staffed Voter Information Verification Agency.

Estimates and actual costs from other states with or considering voter ID have varied widely, from negligible to upwards of $10 million in Missouri.

In a March 2011 survey, electionline.org found that since the requirements of the states and how each calculated costs varied, comparisons were not necessarily reliable.

The costs in Georgia and Indiana, for example, differed widely, with Georgia spending just over $1.7 million from 2006 to 2011.

Indiana, on the other hand, spent close to $10 million to issue the cards, and another $2 million to educate the voters over the same time period.

It was unclear whether the costs in either state also included the costs of staffing a new agency, as proposed here.

Nor was it clear if the costs in those states included the costs of any litigation challenging the voter ID laws there.

We know that lawsuits are coming if the voter ID bill, and others seen as suppressing the vote, are signed into law here.

And we know that the bill here for outside counsel in the redistricting cases pending in Wake County is already over $700,000, and that case is just in its beginning phase. If that challenge looks anything like the one beginning in early 2000, there will be many more years of attorneys’ fees to cover.

And then there’s the political cost.

Meet Rick Scott

Gov. Pat McCrory recently told WRAL that he doesn’t weigh in on most bills as they move through the legislature, preferring to let them run their course.

“I have tried to stay out of the minutia of issues that probably won’t see the light of day, except in the media,” McCrory said.

But if and when a voting bill hits his desk later this session, he might want to remember the Rick Scott experience.

As governor of Florida, Scott signed into law sweeping voting changes enacted by his Republican-controlled legislature in 2011, including a shortening of early voting days and limits on voter registration organizations.

Then came the November election, and Florida voting lines became a national embarrassment. Some polling places were overwhelmed with voters, including in Miami-Dade County, where voters waited up to six hours to cast their ballots.

Scott’s approval ratings then took a nosedive, with recent polls showing an approval rating of 33 percent.

Facing re-election in November 2014, Scott had an epiphany in early January: Florida needed to reform its election laws. Among his proposals, Scott now wants more early voting days and locations.

“What Florida showed us is that, as a policy matter, high levels of restrictions were costly – it cost more money to put them into place, and they had to defend these laws in court,” Gaskins said. “And they were politically costly. People who have been given the opportunity to vote early want to vote early. And taking those days away is rarely popular.”

People want fair and reasonable access to the polls and they want their votes to be safe and safeguarded, she added, but they don’t want an obstacle course. “Americans can tell the difference between making sure something works and setting up some pure bureaucratic hoops.”

Back to the future

Before the reins of power changed hands in January, North Carolina had begun the process of bringing voting into the digital age with the goals of improving efficiency and security and expanding voter access.

The state is one of 22 that have fully or substantially automated the voter registration process through the division of motor vehicles. Voters are able to access their registration information online. And, at least as of now, voters are able to register and vote on the same day.

“Are you making it easier to vote?” Gaskins asked. “Are you making it easier to vote early? Are you thinking about opportunities to create online voter registration?  Are you expanding opportunities for people to access the polls, versus enacting laws that are highly restrictive and make it more difficult for people to vote?”

Those are the hallmarks of a state intent on expanding access to as many eligible voters as possible, she added.

Yet here we are with voter ID, stuck in a political and philosophical battle over a costly law meant to solve a non-existent problem.

Time and resources would be better spent looking for ways to improve election administration and streamline the registration process in a way that makes voting portable and reliable.

Online registration is one example of positive change. According to a report on voter registration modernization by the Brennan Center, some 15 states offer or are in the process of offering that now.

But here, voters still have to sign and submit the paper form.

A few months back, the Civitas politicos got their knickers all in a twist over registrations completed digitally, allegedly lacking the “wet signature” required under law.

The real issue there was not whether the digital signatures complied with the law—the director of the state board of elections and its counsel said they did.

The question should have been, ‘why aren’t we accepting electronic and digital signatures and enabling online registration?’ The secretary of state and other state agencies accept such signatures. So do the courts.

“As a policy matter it just makes more sense to look at modernizing the systems, which will automatically make the process more secure and automatically give more voters access, rather than putting the burden on individual voters who may or may not be able to comply with the law,” Gaskins said. “We’ve found that that’s a lot more efficient and more effective over time, rather than to trying to shore up the election system by making it harder and harder on individual voters.”

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