RALEIGH — The Republican-backed measure making sweeping changes to when and how North Carolinians can vote is headed to the state House, where it is expected to pass along partisan lines.
The bill approved Thursday by the GOP-dominated Senate requires voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls and shortens early voting by a week. The measure also ends same-day voter registration and eliminates a popular high school civics program that registers thousands of students to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays.
The bill eliminates straight-ticket voting, which has been in place in the state since 1925. Disclosure requirements intended to make clear who is underwriting campaign ads will be weakened and political parties would be enabled to rake in unlimited corporate donations.
Republicans claim the bill will restore faith in elections and prevent voter fraud, which they claim is endemic and undetected. Nonpartisan voting rights groups, Democrats and Libertarians say the true goal is suppressing voter turnout among the young, the old, the poor and minorities.
Even as the bill was still being debated Thursday, the fight over its provisions appeared headed for court.
Attorney General Eric Holder says the U.S. Justice Department will challenge a new voter ID law in Texas and hinted it may pursue similar legal action against other states, including North Carolina. Several other groups, including the NACCP, also indicated they might mount legal challenges.
The state House passed the bill with the voter ID requirement in April, but Senate leaders waited until the waning days of the legislative session to take up the measure and add more voting restrictions.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 last month to effectively halt the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, enacted to outlaw racial discrimination against voters. North Carolina was among the states, mostly in the South, that were subjected to special federal enforcement, with requirements to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws.
The high court’s ruling cleared the way for North Carolina Republicans to enact the voting law changes without having to obtain prior federal approval.
“We understand there will be lawsuits,” said Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), who is a lawyer. He added, “It’s our belief the laws we are passing are consistent with Constitutional requirements and they will be upheld.”
Voting statistics in North Carolina show Democrats are more likely to vote early and vote straight ticket, two of the practices targeted by the bill. A state study also estimated more than 300,000 registered voters lack driver’s licenses or other forms of state-issued ID, most of them elderly or low-income minorities. A Democratic amendment to add student ID cards from universities and community colleges was rebuffed.
During a lengthy floor debate in the state Senate, Democrats repeatedly pressed Republicans on why it makes sense to roll back decades of measures intended to increase voter registration and boost turnout.
“This is about suppressing the vote,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham), the son of a well-known civil rights crusader. “When I look at all these measures in their totality, I can’t help but wonder if the goal is simply to maintain political power.”
GOP senators repeatedly denied that the new measures are tied to partisan gain. Despite records showing only a handful of documented cases of voter fraud prosecuted in the state over the last decade, Republicans compared the state’s elections to the notoriously tainted races in 1960s Chicago.
“All the Democratic talking points are the same, that we’re suppressing votes,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, (R-Randolph). “Folks, we’re trying to guarantee that your vote counts.”
Republicans took control of the North Carolina Legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented full control of state government with the inauguration of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory in January. But registered Democrats still heavily outnumber Republican voters in the state and the margins of victory in recent elections have sometimes been razor thin.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, suggested Republicans are concerned about facing voters after passing a budget he said hurts public education to enact tax cuts that favor the rich.
“If you all have self-confidence that your agenda is the right agenda for the state of North Carolina, then let’s open the doors of the polling place to as many as we can and the people will ratify it,” Stein said. “But if what you are doing is limiting who can vote in elections, what you are telling me is that you don’t have self-confidence. What you are doing is shameful, un-American, and shows everyone in North Carolina whose side you’re on — and it’s not theirs.”
Democrats predicted the voting changes will lead to long lines at the polls, as happened in recent years after early voting days were cut in Florida.