By the time presidential candidates start descending on North Carolina in 2020, voters may be required to show a photo identification before voting. State legislators filed a proposal last week that would ask voters to decide whether a photo ID requirement should be added to the current qualifications to vote.
The issue of voter ID is often a contentious topic that reignites rhetoric of alleged fraud and purported suppression. Here is some, hopefully, useful context about voter ID:
What are other states doing when it comes to voter ID?
North Carolina is presently one of 16 states, along with the District of Columbia, that does not require any verification or documentation to cast a ballot. Legislators did pass a divisive bill five years ago that, among other provisions, initially required photo ID. That provision was ultimately lifted, but other components – such as reducing early voting, eliminating same day registrations, and doing away with out of precinct balloting – led to the law being ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts, for disproportionately effecting black and Latino voters.
Which photo IDs would be permissible?
We don’t know yet. This proposal simply asks registered voters if they are for or against requiring photo ID at the polls. There are no details about which IDs would be allowed. One point of contention during this debate in recent years has been whether photo IDs issued by the UNC or the state community college system would be accepted. Several states allow a government-issued work badge. The scope of permitted forms of identification is something voting rights advocates will be watching closely.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) told WUNC in an interview last week, “If there is that person out there, who is somehow living in the shadows that does not have any kind of identification the state would provide them one for free.”
One interesting off-shoot is that this proposed amendment would require ‘photo’ identification. With technological advancements what they are – fingerprints are used to unlock phones, and retinal scans are utilized at (some) U.S. customs – it’s reasonable to wonder if, or when, a picture will become antiquated.
What about North Carolina’s neighbors?
Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina – have varying requirements. Georgia provides free voter ID cards issued by the state or county. Among South Carolina’s relatively limited options is a photo military ID issued by the federal government. And Tennessee accepts a handgun carry permit photo, while in Virginia voters are able to show a valid student ID from within the state.
What is implementing legislation?
Often times when a constitutional amendment is proposed, there will be legislation, with implementation procedures, that runs more or less in tandem. In other words, a companion piece of policy moves at the same time as a proposed constitutional amendment – partially to keep the actual constitution from getting overly long and cumbersome. This legislation, which can be contingent upon approval from the voters, generally lays out the details of what is to follow. There are no plans for such partner legislation with this proposal. According to Speaker Moore, if voters approve this initiative, then legislators will work on a bill hashing out the details.
Voter fraud and suppression are two frequently heard phrases in this debate. Are they accurate?
Not really. Voter fraud is extremely rare. And in fact, research shows that the most common type of fraud (still quite infrequent) comes in the form of mail-in ballots.
“This is a rare issue where both sides are likely overplaying their hand,” said Chris Cooper, head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. “Study after study demonstrates that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. For example, the state of New Hampshire just conducted an investigation [and] found 5 causes of fraudulent voter in the 2016 election. Investigations in Georgia a few years ago came up with similar results. From this perspective, the Republican Party is trying to pass a law to solve a problem that isn’t exactly pressing. At the same time, there is little evidence that voter ID laws suppress turnout.
“While it is true that minorities and people with lower incomes are less likely to have IDs, there’s little evidence that that translates into reduced voter turnout among these groups,” Cooper said.
How common are amendments to the state constitution?
The current North Carolina constitution was ratified in 1971. Since then, 45 proposed amendments – in the form of referenda questions – have gone before the voters. Thirty seven, or nearly 82 percnet, have passed.
Is this likely to pass?
In a word – yes. Numerous polls have found that a comfortable majority of Americans support requiring photo ID at the polls. A 2016 Gallup poll pegs the approval at 80 percent.
Why is all this happening now?
Ah the elephant in the room! Glad you asked. It’s an election year, after all, and history indicates that it’s going to be a good year for the minority party. In modern presidential history, the first mid-term for the party that has taken back the White House, generally doesn’t go so well – think of 2002 and 2010 – during the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively. That history, coupled with low approval ratings for President Trump and an energized Democratic base, has plenty of conservatives worried. On top of all that, voter turnout is likely to be relatively low this year, with no major statewide races.
This proposal is a wedge issue – think the marriage amendment from 2012, or more recently HB2 – as a potentially divisive topic to fire-up possible voters, and also dominate the media narrative. Expect to see/hear/read political advertisements with Republican candidates going after Democrats, who are outspoken against the photo ID requirement.
It looks likely that this proposal will advance out of the House this week, and get approval in the Senate later this month. There is no opportunity for a gubernatorial veto with proposed constitutional amendments. So the next stop after that is your ballot.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of proposed and adopted amendments to the North Carolina constitution.