For North Carolina’s new Republican legislative leaders, the choice is obvious: make it harder for some people to vote!
No, this is not a bad joke; this is an actual top priority of the new conservative majorities as they prepare to take control of the General Assembly next month. According to news reports, the new legislative leaders will, as one of their first official acts, attempt to pass legislation that will require all North Carolina voters to bring up-to-date photo identification with them to the polls.
According to proponents, a photo ID requirement is a simple, anti-fraud initiative. In this narrative, “voter fraud” – mostly perpetrated by nefarious and dark-skinned foreigners – is a huge problem Unfortunately, such proposals have superficial appeal – even to a lot of well-meaning people. Here’s why North Carolinians shouldn’t fall for this argument:
Reason # 1 - Voting is a sacred right. Though a lot of us don’t act like it all the time, voting remains one of the core freedoms of our democracy.
Like the freedoms of speech and religion, government should not and cannot take action to limit our exercise of this precious right without a damn good reason. Elected officials can’t just pass laws that erect barriers to voting because they feel like it or because they think it’s a good idea. There has to be truly compelling evidence that it is necessary in order to prevent a serious evil and that there isn’t a less burdensome alternative.
Reason #2 – There’s no evidence that mandatory photo ID laws are necessary. Despite occasional anecdotes – often from biased sources – there is zero hard evidence of widespread voter fraud in North Carolina or, indeed, the nation as a whole. According to the Director of the State Board of Elections, “in 2008, there were 18 cases of double-voting in North Carolina out of millions of votes cast.”
This evidence (or lack thereof) mirrors similar findings from around the country.
Data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that while 196,139,871 votes have been cast in federal elections since October 2002, only 52 individuals have been convicted of federal voter fraud. Most of these convictions were for vote buying or for voter registration fraud, neither of which would be prevented by restrictive ID requirements at the polls.
Reason # 3 - Mandatory photo ID could disenfranchise tens of thousands of North Carolinians. The American Association of People with Disabilities estimates that more than 3 million Americans with disabilities do not possess a driver’s license or state-issued photo ID.
A University of Milwaukee study found that approximately 23 percent of Wisconsin residents aged 65 and older do not have driver’s licenses or photo identification, while fewer than 3 percent of Wisconsin students have driver’s licenses showing their current address.
There have been similar findings in Georgia and many other states.
Put simply, mandatory photo ID laws systematically block and discourage voter participation. Like poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow days, they set up roadblocks that make it much harder for thousands of good, honest, law abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.
Bob Hall, the nonpartisan voting expert at Democracy North Carolina has the best answer for what’s really behind this proposal:
“Requiring a photo ID is really just a way to reduce the number of voters Republicans don’t like. It’s exactly what the Democrats did after 1898 when they regained control of the General Assembly and instituted the literacy test and poll tax to “stop voter fraud” and purge as many opponents from voter rolls as possible. We’re suffering the legacy of that enforced disenfranchisement still today.”
In other words, the proposal is, first and foremost, a dark and cynical political move aimed at cementing a political victory. For this and a host of other reasons, it is an idea that deserves to be resisted with all of the hope, energy and optimism that caring and thinking North Carolinians can muster.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch.