Mostly Republicans speak up on voter ID at public hearing
A crowd of mostly Republicans spoke in favor of a voter ID bill Wednesday at the last public hearing before the North Carolina House puts the measure to committee votes.
More than 100 people signed up to address the House Elections Committee, though many did not appear. The public hearing followed a committee meeting during which members heard expert testimony and began debating a Republican-backed bill that opponents call a solution in search of a problem and supporters say injects greater confidence in the electoral system.
The debate in North Carolina resembles those in other places with Republican control of state legislatures and governors' mansions. Opponents call voter ID laws cynical ploys to restrict turnout among poor and minority voters.
The vast majority of speakers at the public hearing supported the efforts of state Republicans who now hold veto-proof majorities along with an ally in Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Republicans anticipate committee votes on the new bill next week.
The speakers argued opponents deny cases of suspected fraud submitted by local boards of elections to district attorneys who rarely prosecute. They called requirements to present photo identification at the polls a common-sense way to guarantee the integrity of the electoral system for skeptics who say their vote is canceled out through lax enforcement.
The proposed law would take effect in 2016 and require voters to show one of eight state-issued forms of photo identification or a tribal ID card. Students attending public colleges could present school ID. The law includes a provision waiving fees to obtain state-issued ID for those who sign a statement claiming "financial hardship," but groups such as the NAACP have still decried the bill as an unconstitutional poll tax.
Jeanette Doran, executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, said in an interview that a likely legal challenge "would be a lot smoother" without requiring the sworn statement, but that doesn't mean the clause is unconstitutional. She argues requiring those with the means to pay does not amount to a poll tax.
"They're simply asked to produce an ID, a photo ID for which they'd have for a variety of purposes," she said. "There is no charge for the act of voting, which is a poll tax."
Doran, who favors voter ID legislation, said opponents of the law could argue the state constitution's guarantee of "free" elections extends to financial obligations, but she doesn't think a court would interpret North Carolina's bill as interference.
Bob Hall, executive director of voting rights group Democracy North Carolina, said he disagrees with that interpretation and believes the law might violate other parts of the constitution, such as a section declaring "political rights and privileges" can't depend on property qualifications.
"It easily could mean someone's assets or financial wherewithal, which goes beyond just a physical ownership of real property," he said.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a Duke University student who heads its chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, said he's concerned about the exclusion of IDs from private colleges and universities. At Duke, campus organizers are already planning education campaigns to inform students about potential new requirements.
"The fact that students won't be able to use their college IDs is an especially huge problem (here), because most Duke students are out of state," he said. "I think college students are increasingly seeing this as a direct attack on them."