Democracy can become a farce if the rules by which votes are cast are skewed so that the voices of some citizens are muffled. That is the troubling prospect facing North Carolina as legislators move to require would-be voters to show photo identification and to trim the period for early voting.
At the same time, a broad rewrite of election laws sprung for hurry-up consideration during what’s likely to be the final week of this year’s legislative session would throw the state’s highest profile judicial elections under a cloud. A successful program to minimize the influence of special interest money in those contests would be scrapped. Candidates for seats on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals would be back to having to raise all the money to pay for their campaigns from private contributors, rather than being eligible for a modest amount of public funds.
While some contributors to judicial races no doubt have the purest of motives, seeking to boost candidates of high intellect, deep experience, and sterling character, it’s sadly fair to speculate that others think they are investing in predictable and favorable outcomes. That’s not the way courts operating under the rule of law are supposed to work. No wonder that 14 of the 15 Court of Appeals judges wrote to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger with a request to keep the public campaign finance program on the books.
The push for a voter ID law is a long-standing priority of the Republicans who control the state House and Senate and of the Republican Party nationally. The ostensible purpose is to deter fraud at the polls – even though instances of alleged fraud by means of impersonation, which an ID requirement would help prevent, are vanishingly few.
Honesty, plus fairness
It’s of paramount importance that elections be conducted honestly and that vote counts be accurate. But by any objective standard, North Carolina has not had a problem with voter fraud requiring radical surgery that would disadvantage voters who are less likely to have the necessary IDs. Lo and behold, it happens that those voters are ones who tend to side with Democratic candidates.
Broadly speaking, they fall into categories more closely identified with society’s have-nots than with the haves. They might be older folks, college students, poor people, black or Hispanic citizens for whom privileges such as a driver’s license remain elusive.
All of them, having met other valid requirements, are perfectly eligible to participate in our democratic system. Any rules that would make it disproportionately harder for them to vote violate basic principles of fairness, hearkening back to the days when poll taxes and intimidation were used to deprive black Americans of their voting rights.
The House approved a voter ID bill, House Bill 589, in April. The measure stayed beneath the surface in the Senate until recently. It was given an apparent boost by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that suspended federal review of state election law changes under the federal Voting Rights Act. When it finally came before the Senate Rules Committee, it had mushroomed to cover a conservative wish list. Besides imposing the photo ID rule and repealing the Judicial Elections Fund, here are some of the more problematic changes. The bill:
— Trims the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. Early voting has become increasingly popular, with 56 percent of the voters in the 2012 presidential elections choosing that option. The risk is that cutting the number of days will result in crowding both at early voting sites and at the polls on Election Day. When people are trying to meet the demands of work and family, that is a disincentive to vote and runs counter to the principle that voting should be as convenient as reasonably possible.
— Ends pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and de-emphasizes voter registration at high schools. Also, cards issued by the state’s public universities would not be acceptable forms of ID. The youth vote has leaned Democratic during recent election cycles.
— Repeals the Voter-Owned Elections Fund, a public financing program that has allowed candidates for state auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction to run their campaigns without heavy reliance on contributions from special interests. This program should be expanded to cover other statewide regulatory offices, not thrown overboard.
— Raises the maximum contribution to a state or local candidate from $4,000 to $5,000 per election and indexes it to inflation. Injecting more private money into campaigns is a good thing? Evidently the sponsors think so.
— Gives corporations more leeway to contribute to political parties, another move that amplifies special-interest influence.
Getting the short end
According to the progressive advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, while 22 percent of the state’s active registered voters are African-American, they make up 31 percent of active registered voters who lack photo ID. Similar disparities exist for women, seniors and young people. If fraud at the polls committed by people pretending to be someone else – a felony — were a genuine issue, then tightening ID requirements could be justified. But that is not the case. Especially from the perspective of the North Carolina Council of Churches, which seeks to protect the voting franchise for all citizens, especially those who otherwise may lack influence in our society, the photo ID rule poses unnecessary inconvenience and expense to citizens and government alike.
House Bill 859 in its expanded form was tentatively approved by the full Senate along party lines on July 24. Democrats successfully posed an amendment requiring counties to offer the same number of hours for early voting, even with the shortened number of days, by increasing the number of sites, extending hours or both. That was a useful change that drew nearly unanimous support, to the Republican majority’s credit.
Still, this bill serves no legitimate purpose in light of the absence of credible concerns about fraud. A good outcome would be for the House, despite its previous and misguided support for voter ID, to balk at the Senate’s last-minute overreaching, with its unfortunately partisan overtones.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate