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Election 2018: Voter ID amendment stirs strong feelings

SALISBURY — One of the most controversial proposed amendments to the North Carolina constitution being considered by voters this fall also has the shortest ballot question:

“Constitutional amendment to require voters to provide photo identification before voting in person.”

Depending on who’s talking, those 13 words are a common-sense step to protect the integrity of the vote — or an attack on hard-won voting rights.

The General Assembly voted in June to put the amendment before voters after a federal appeals court found parts of the state’s 2013 voting law unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the issue on appeal.

The people who see a voter ID requirement as an attack include many African-Americans who say the amendment is yet another obstacle intended to discourage minority voting.

Gemale Black, president of the Salisbury-Rowan Branch of the NAACP, says voters he knows are highly motivated to vote against the amendment “because they feel this is a violation of every citizen’s right to be able to vote.”

He sees the amendment as a political ploy that’s already having an impact.

“I also believe that the amendment partially did what it was created and intended to do, which is to discourage voters to stay away from the polls in an attempt to hassle voters,” Black says.

North Carolina voters do not have to present a photo ID to vote in this fall’s elections. Such a requirement was in place for the May 2016 primary, but the federal court ruling prevented that.

Pro: ‘Not a radical idea’

Elaine Hewitt, vice chairwoman of the Rowan County Republican Party and a former elections board member, supports the amendment as a way to protect the integrity of the election system.

“The vote is more important than airline security and controlling Sudafed sales,” Hewitt says.

Thirty-four states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 17 of those states, a photo ID is required; the other 17 also accept non-photo IDs.

“It is not a radical idea,” Hewitt says. “The Rowan Public Library and the Salisbury YMCA have my photo on record. Whether the voter shows an ID or the photo is in a database, the technology is not difficult.”

The issue has come up in recent years, she says, because Democrats liberalized voting laws and were not as concerned about election integrity. When Republicans gained power and tried to tighten laws, they ran into opposition — hence, the amendment approach.

“I support a statute; however, the Democrat approach is to litigate each issue until they can get the issue to a liberal court. The N.C. Voter ID statute, HB 589, is a perfect example,” Hewitt says.

After the bill was passed in the legislature, the N.C. NAACP and others sued to stop it.

“Superior Court Judge Thomas Schroeder issued a 485-page decision approving the law,” Hewitt says. “He stated that the plaintiff had failed to show that there would be ‘materially adverse effects on the ability of minority voters to cast a ballot and effectively exercise the electoral franchise.'”

The ruling was appealed to the federal level.

“The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is comprised of 15 judges – 10 appointed by Clinton and Obama, four by Bush, and one by Reagan,” she says. “The three judges who ruled on the decision were appointed by Clinton and Obama. One of the judges, Judge Floyd, had been appointed by Bush to a lower court.”

That panel found the law unconstitutional and said it was an effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Con: ‘A blank check’

Emily Perry, an African-American community activist in Salisbury, says it’s a shame and a disgrace that the issue is on the ballot after going through the courts.

“It’s just not respectful,” Perry says. “It’s disenfranchising many, many of our people.”

The most common form of government-issued photo ID is a driver’s license, says Black, the NAACP president. Those most unlikely to have a license are the elderly, the poor, people who live in big cities and young people. People who live in rural areas, far from a driver’s license office, also face a challenge getting a photo ID, he says.

Perry compares the photo ID rule to past efforts to disenfranchise black voters with requirements such as guessing how many jelly beans were in a jar.

Perry heads the task force that is establishing the Dixonville-Lincoln Memorial, a project to honor a pre-Civil War African-American cemetery in Salisbury.

She thinks of her late aunt, she says, who was disabled and did not have a driver’s license. For many people, she says, getting to the driver’s license office to get an ID could be a physical or financial burden.

And the amendment does not say what kind of ID would be accepted, she says; the legislature plans to fill in those details after the vote.

“That’s like asking people to sign a blank check,” Perry says.

“I’m personally angry and upset. We have real situations in our community,” she says — immediate concerns that require attention. “People should be watching out for each other … instead of causing more and more confusion.”

Voter fraud 

Supporters of the amendment say requiring a photo ID is aimed at preventing fraud.

“The liberal argument that there is no voting fraud is faulty logic,” Hewitt says. “If voter fraud is only defined as the number of prosecuted court cases, then that’s like saying, ‘No one was speeding on Interstate 85 in Rowan County on a specific day because no one was prosecuted in court for speeding on that day.'”

She cites local incidents.

“I’ve actually had three cases of Rowan voter fraud fall in my lap. First, I noticed that a deceased woman was on the voter rolls when I was putting out campaign signs. I later found that she was documented to have voted after her death. It’s documented in Rowan County Board of Elections minutes.

“The next two cases were while I was working during early voting. I found a piece of paper discarded in the voting site that had the full names of two people and an address. The only reasonable explanation for that piece of paper in that location is that they were committing voter fraud. I still have the paper.”

She’s also heard reports of Rowan voters laughing about voting in more than one state, which is a felony. “Unfortunately, the story was not relayed in time to access the names of the voters.”

Hewitt says the state Transportation Department issues a photo ID that is not a driver’s license. When voters were asked in 2014 if they had a photo ID, fewer than 1 percent — 0.07 percent — said they did not have one.

John Leatherman, former county GOP chairman, points out that in 2016 the Republican Party offered people free rides to the driver’s license office to get photo IDs.

Hewitt cites statistics from the N.C. State Board of Elections’ investigation into the 2012 election. When election officials compared state voter rolls with those in 27 other states, 765 voters were an exact match of first and last name, birth date and last four digits of their Social Security number, and they voted in both states. Without the Social Security number, some 35,750 voters with first and last name and birth date matched in two states voted in both.

It’s not clear if any of those voters were prosecuted.

“Whether duplicate voting is inadvertent or deliberate, it is happening,” Hewitt says. “Each time someone votes a second time, they are suppressing someone else’s vote. And that is fraud.”

More recently, other reports of voter fraud have led to charges:

• A dozen Alamance County residents were charged earlier this year with voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election. All were on probation or parole for felony convictions, which disqualifies a person from voting in this state. If convicted, they face up to two years in prison.

• In August, 19 immigrants ages 26 to 71 were charged with illegally voting in the 2016 election in North Carolina; nine of the 19 were also charged with falsely claiming American citizenship to get on voter rolls.

Voter education

Black says not all cases of fraud result from ill intent.

“Voter fraud occurs more due to miseducation of voters vs. malicious acts,” he says. Better voter education could prevent ineligible people from believing they can vote, he says.

DeeDee Wright, a West Side resident and civil rights activist as a teenager, says her own work as an election official convinced her Rowan County does a good job of preventing voter fraud. Poll workers often know the people in their precinct.

“I think there’s enough checks and balances to not warrant this type of thing,” Wright says. She’s concerned about not knowing what kind of ID legislators might require. She said making everyone get a photo ID to vote is akin to another pre-civil-rights tactic — asking voters how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.

Wright says people need to be better informed about voting laws. Voter registration drives sign people up who may not be eligible and may not intend to vote.

“We need a paradigm shift to voter education,” Wright says, “not just registration.”

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