Legislators use new tack: cooperation

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 12, 2018

RALEIGH — Have the Republicans running the legislature gone soft?

Their lame-duck session has been lacking the fireworks I’d expected in the last hurrah of veto-proof GOP rule. The main agenda item was voter ID. And with a newly inked constitutional amendment to back it up, I fully expected Republicans to ram through something similar to the 2013 voter ID requirements.

Maybe they’d manage to pass a bill in a single day without considering public input, as they’ve done in the past. Or maybe they’d use voter ID as an opportunity to make it harder for college students to vote. Maybe they’d even throw some unrelated controversial proposal into the bill, just for fun.

Instead, lawmakers returned to Raleigh on their best behavior. They spent about two weeks crafting the voter ID bill before sending it to Gov. Roy Cooper. They held a public hearing and took written comments, and they actually listened and made revisions based on those comments.

For example, the original proposal would have allowed voters to use student IDs from UNC system schools, but not community colleges or private universities. That would have created a confusing, uneven playing field, so the final version allows for all college and university IDs — provided each school’s administration complies with state standards to issue secure IDs.

In a move that’s enraged the GOP’s far-right elements, legislative leaders shot down attempts to limit use of student IDs. Only 17 House Republicans backed that amendment from Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, prompting him to fume in his constituent newsletter that the voter ID rules were “so watered down as to be barely worth supporting.”

Meanwhile, leadership allowed Democrats to make improvements to the bill. Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson and the legislature’s only American Indian, added state-recognized tribes to the list of acceptable tribal IDs. And Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, successfully pushed to have county election offices issue photo IDs throughout the early voting period.

That “voter photo identification card” option is a major improvement over the 2013 voter ID law. Under the old law, voters who didn’t have a driver’s license or other valid photo ID had to go stand in line at the DMV to get an ID. That’s a hassle in a state where DMV wait times sometimes stretch for hours.

Having IDs available through county election offices makes more sense. You’ll be able to register to vote and get a photo ID in one trip, as long as you provide your date of birth and the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Still don’t have a photo ID? You’ll still be able to vote a provisional ballot (which gets a little extra scrutiny) by filling out a form that explains why you don’t have ID.

It’s hard to imagine a voter ID law that could be more forgiving to folks who show up to the polls without ID. Even an alternate proposal from Senate Democrats was largely identical to the GOP’s final version. The main difference is that Democrats want to wait until 2021 to implement the requirement, while Republicans have it taking effect next year.

Still, the partisan debate over voter ID isn’t over. Even though they helped shape the bill, most legislative Democrats voted no. I suspect there’s no way they’d vote for any proposal to implement the constitutional amendment, because the majority of their party remains staunchly opposed to any voter ID requirement.

There will likely still be a lawsuit over voter ID. Opponents can’t claim that it’s unconstitutional under the state constitution — since it’s now literally in the constitution — but they could mount a claim that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

The looming legal battle might be the reason that Republicans decided to play nice, in hopes of bolstering their case in court after losing the last voter ID lawsuit.

But the efforts toward compromise and public input in the lame-duck session should be a model for the legislature going forward. With Cooper able to successfully veto legislation next year, that model will be the only way lawmakers can get anything done.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter.