On the eve of trial in the legal challenge to North Carolina’s oppressive Voter ID law, the General Assembly has capitulated, voting overwhelmingly in both houses to allow qualified voters who lack photo identification to affirm their identities and exercise their constitutional right to vote.
In passing House Bill 836 on Thursday, the General Assembly created an alternative to disenfranchisement for voters who lack current photo identification. Those voters will now be able to cast a ballot after providing their birthdates, the last four digits of their Social Security number, and an affidavit stating that there is a “reasonable impediment” to their ability to present a photo ID.
This change comes after months of litigation by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, on behalf of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, and individuals, against the North Carolina State Board of Elections. The new legislation follows a series of nine public hearings held across the state this month, at which election officials fielded comments from the public about implementation of the Voter ID requirement, which takes effect beginning with the 2016 presidential primary election. SCSJ and its partners were present at each of those nine public hearings, from Manteo to Boone, and encouraged the state to allow more flexibility in implementation of the Voter ID requirement to minimize the number of voters who are disenfranchised by the 2013 voter suppression law.
At the June 3rd hearing in Raleigh, Dr. Brenda Rogers, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, urged the State Board of Elections “to provide clarification to ensure that all eligible voters may exercise their constitutional right, which is not a privilege, but a right.” Rogers provided examples of how the law leaves open to interpretation many aspects of the Voter ID requirement, which harms voters by creating confusion in the election process and the potential for unequal enforcement of the law.
In encouraging House members to pass House Bill 863 on Thursday, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, emphasized that the feedback received during the public hearing process necessitated a legislative response. When the General Assembly passed the Voter Information Verification Act in August 2013, Lewis said, “we said that it was our intent that every person who was a duly eligible voter would be fully able to participate and exercise their right.” Lewis noted that the new bill fills some of the gaps left by VIVA by providing “a failsafe” for affected voters, ensuring that “a qualified voter will have no impediment in exercising their right to vote.”
Since VIVA was enacted in 2013, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and its partners have amassed a huge amount of evidence demonstrating the burden that the voter suppression bill places on qualified voters in North Carolina, not only by imposing a photo ID requirement, but also by cutting a week out of the early voting period, eliminating same-day registration, discounting valid votes cast outside a voter’s assigned precinct, eliminating pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old citizens, and eliminating straight-ticket voting. These changes not only add to the already long lines at polling places and the administrative burden placed on election officials, but they also disenfranchise qualified North Carolina voters who for valid reasons are unable to obtain photo identification or make multiple trips to government agencies in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
Although today’s changes are a step in the right direction for North Carolina voters, obstacles to voting remain. During debate on the House floor Thursday afternoon, Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, noted that the modification merely “makes a bad bill a little less worse.”
Contact: George Eppsteiner, Staff Attorney for voting rights, 919-794-4220; Allison Riggs, Senior Attorney for Voting Rights, 919-323-3909; Anita Earls, Executive Director, 919-794-4198