Voter law changes hinder ballot access

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 4, 2011

By Judith Browne-Dianis and Bob Hall
For the Salisbury Post
In cities across the state, North Carolinians are going to the polls this week to exercise the most fundamental right of our democracy: the right to vote. The underlying principle of our democracy is that we are all equal in the voting booth: black or white, young or old, rich or poor. When we cast our ballot, we all raise an equal voice to determine the shape of our government.
Sadly, some North Carolina legislators seem determined to reduce the chorus of voices that will be heard in the 2012 elections.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed an onerous bill to make voters show a government photo ID when they vote. It may seem like a common-sense requirement, but more people than you may imagine don’t drive or have a photo ID — and they are disproportionately people of color, the elderly, low-income citizens, women who change their names and the young. For example, a match-up of motor vehicle and election databases shows that while African Americans are 22 percent of N.C. registered voters, they are 32 percent of the roughly 500,000 registered voters without a state-issued ID.
Gov. Bev Perdue wisely vetoed the photo ID bill, but Republican legislative leaders say they will keep trying to override her veto this year or next spring, in time for the 2012 election. And that’s not all. The same leaders want to cut the early voting period, eliminate same-day registration, reduce the number of polling sites on Election Day and cut out the convenience of straight-ticket voting.
Our voting rights are now under the largest assault in a century. Nationally, a wave of new restrictive laws will make voting more difficult for as many as 21 million Americans. Many of the laws follow model proposals from ultra-conservative groups, like the J.W. Pope Civitas Institute here in North Carolina. They all reflect an elitist view that voting is a privilege reserved for people with worthy credentials.
But unlike renting a car or cashing a check, voting is a fundamental right, like free speech. Strong evidence must be presented to impose restrictions on a constitutional right — and it doesn’t exist. The multiple safeguards already in place when you register and vote are working in North Carolina. That’s why you are more likely to be hit by lightning than have someone vote in your name, which is the only type of fraud prevented with a photo ID requirement.
The proposed legislation wouldn’t have stopped the cases of double voting recently discovered in Wake County, but it will impose a new burden on hundreds of thousands of legitimate voters. It’s one of the most restrictive proposals in the nation. Most states with an ID requirement allow the voter who forgets it to sign a sworn statement, under penalty of a felony, and cast a regular ballot; but not the N.C. bill.
To understand the consequences of the bill, just read the stories coming out of South Carolina as it implements its new law. They harken back to the Jim Crow era of the discriminatory poll tax and literacy test. Larrie Butler, born in 1926 in South Carolina, remembers those days. He was born at home when strict segregation blocked access for African Americans to many hospitals. Because he lacks an official birth certificate, he was told it would cost more than $100 to get the underlying documents needed to obtain a “free” ID from the state.
The photo ID laws are not just expensive for the individual voter. Advancement Project’s report “What’s Wrong with This Picture” reveals that they cost states million of dollars to implement during a time of tough budget constraints.
Thanks to the governor’s veto, North Carolina has thus far escaped the high cost of voter suppression, but the battle continues. The most basic promise of our democracy is that on Election Day all Americans have an equal say in shaping their government. We must continue to treasure and make real that promise or we will lose the essence of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
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Browne-Dianis is co-director of the Washington-based Advancement Project (advancementproject. org); Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina (