Editorial: Weak case for voter ID

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 26, 2011

In Rowan County’s recent municipal elections, a paltry 5,474 voters went to the polls, a turnout of about 14 percent. In the general election of 2010, turnout barely rose to 40 percent — meaning six out of 10 registered voters chose to sit on the sidelines. Even in 2008, a historic year in presidential elections, turnout was about 68 percent, meaning more than a quarter of potential voters stayed home.
Given those numbers, we’d ask a simple question: Which is a bigger problem in Rowan — voter fraud … or voter apathy?
The answer should be obvious. Yet, elected officials are considering a photo ID requirement that could affect voter participation among citizens who are older and poorer, the groups that are most likely to lack photo IDs. County commissioners voted 4-1 to seek legislative authority to impose an ID requirement in the future. It’s important to note the county is only seeking the option at this point. If granted, it’s not required to impose the ID restriction, and some commissioners said they needed more information about the cost and potential impact of such a law before making a decision. Whenever the right to vote is concerned, lawmakers should tread carefully.
The county’s action follows Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of a statewide voter photo ID law. Such laws are already in place elsewhere, with at least 14 states now requiring photo ID at the ballot box. North Carolina may yet join them if legislators can rally enough votes to override Perdue’s veto in the upcoming short session.
Here, as elsewhere, this debate follows familiar lines. Opponents argue there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud and such laws, whether by intent or not, may suppress turnout, especially among minorities. Advocates argue that fraud may be occurring on a larger scale than anyone knows (with a couple of recent N.C. cases fueling those fears), while contending such laws can be written to ensure that any legal voter lacking a photo ID can easily obtain one.
As for what difference these laws really make, the jury is out, in part because most of them are too recent for the kind of longer term studies that can gauge their actual impact. Just as claims of fraud appear to be overblown, so are premature alarms that such laws disenfranchise legal voters. What we do know is that there’s scant evidence fraudulent voters are overrunning the polls here in Rowan. We also know this is a county with a relatively large proportion of residents who are older or poorer or both. Meanwhile, our legislators should consider whether the state is really well served by a Balkanized electoral law system in which each of North Carolina’s 100 counties conceivably could devise their own ID rules, with the courts left to sort it all out.
As with any new government regulation, the burden should be on advocates to show why it’s necessary, cost effective and worth the inconvenience it may impose. Regarding the need for Rowan to implement its own voter ID requirement, that case has not been made.