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Voter ID laws sound reasonable on the surface. We should want to protect our democracy, which means guaranteeing one vote per citizen. Since most people already have a state-issued driver’s license, what’s the big deal about asking everyone to show some identification before they vote?
If the government intended to issue free photo IDs to everyone who is registered to vote, then the above argument would indeed be reasonable. However, that’s not what the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature is proposing. Make no mistake about it: Voter ID laws are almost always intended to suppress poor, urban and minority voters who tend to support Democrats.
That’s not a conspiracy theory; the US Supreme Court has said as much. After the North Carolina General Assembly passed voter ID legislation in 2016, the highest court in the land ruled that the law was designed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” since black North Carolinians are less likely to possess state-issued photo identification than whites. The NCGA was also admonished by the court for gerrymandering districts based on race to ensure Republican control of the legislature, which provides further evidence that the voter ID law was intended to prevent likely Democratic voters from casting a ballot. Thus, the law was declared unconstitutional.
Now that the voter ID law has been struck down by courts, North Carolina Republicans are pursuing their only other option. By putting an amendment on this year’s ballot, the NCGA hopes to enshrine voter ID requirements in the state’s constitution.
What would the NC voter ID amendment do?
The language of the amendment is purposely vague and misleading. It reads “Every person offering to vote in person shall present photo identification before voting in the manner prescribed by law," but it doesn’t specify which types of ID are acceptable; that’s for the government to decide later. Therefore, the NCGA could theoretically require everyone to get a new photo ID just for voting. At minimum, the ID would have to be state-issued, which means that US passports, military IDs and student IDs would not suffice. Some people would have to go through additional steps (and likely pay fees) before they could vote.
How hard is it to get a state-issued photo ID?
To get photo identification, you often need other forms of identification. If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can obtain a state-issued photo ID card from the NC DMV, but you must pay a fee and bring another form of identification in addition to your social security number as well as proof of residency. If you have no other forms of ID, then you can obtain your birth certificate from the county where you were born (for a fee, of course). You’d also need another document, such as an apartment lease or a tax form, that shows your name and place of residence. If you don’t know your social security number, then you’ll have to apply for a new social security card, which also requires two forms of ID to obtain.
As you can see, obtaining an ID for the sole purpose of voting can come with several hurdles. Now image you’re homeless. Gathering all of that paperwork takes time and money that poor folks just don’t have.
The amendment wouldn’t just disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Many college students and city dwellers rely entirely on public transportation, so they don’t have a driver’s license. For example, my only form of photo ID is a US passport. Being required to get a state-issued ID would make voting more difficult for me and many other North Carolinians. But then again, that’s the whole point of the amendment: to make it harder for likely Democratic voters to vote.
Is voter fraud a problem in NC?
If widespread voter fraud was tainting NC elections, then such an amendment might make sense. How bad is voter fraud in our state? Fortunately, we have some new data to look at.
Out of 4.8 million total votes, 508 ineligible ballots were cast in 2016 according to a report from the NC State Board of Elections. Of those voters, 441 were NC citizens who were serving probation for a felony, which legally disqualified them from voting. Additionally, 41 non-citizens cast ballots, 24 people voted twice and one President Trump supporter voted using her recently deceased mother’s name. The report’s authors noted that no races were affected by these anomalies.
Some will say that one illegal vote is one too many, and I’m inclined to agree, but no system is perfect. The authors of the report pointed out that a voter ID requirement would have only prevented one of those 508 ballots from being cast, so the amendment simply wouldn’t have an impact on the few instances of voter fraud that occur in our state.
Nonetheless, Republicans would have you believe that thousands of illegal votes are being cast each election cycle. For example, many Republican politicians purposely misrepresented an earlier report from NC State Board of Elections that claimed to have identified 35,750 cases of “potential voter fraud” in 2012.
What the report actually found was that 35,750 people with the same first and last name voted in NC and another state. Of course, it's not uncommon for Americans to share the exact same name, and that figure fits the statistical probability of these cases of “potential voter fraud” being mere coincidences. Election boards simply use such correlational data to narrow their search for fraud, which the more recent study reveals is actually rare in NC.
Of course, our Republican politicians know all of this. They are being intentionally deceptive because they have a more sinister motive for supporting voter ID requirements.
Why are NC republicans doing this?
If every registered Democrat voted, then Democrats would win every election. In NC, there are 2.64 million registered Democrats compared to 2.05 million Republicans. There are actually more registered independents than Republicans. Simply put, Republicans can’t win in a fair race, so they have to suppress voter turnout.
That said, ginning up unfounded fears about undocumented immigrants casting millions of illegal votes is an effective strategy for getting some Republican voters to the polls. Meanwhile, it weakens overall faith in democracy while making it harder for poor, black, Latino and urban North Carolinians (who are more likely to vote Democrat) from casting a ballot. A recent News & Observer editorial summed up the voter ID amendment perfectly: “The issue is not about preventing fraud. It’s about preventing voting."
The NCGA is on a dangerous path. In 2016, the Electoral Integrity Project gave our state’s electoral process a score of 58 out of 100, which is on par with countries like Cuba, Iran and Venezuela. Changing the constitution is another step toward authoritarianism. Our leaders are intentionally making it harder for people to vote them out of office, so we need to do that before they succeed.