Mission Creep, part 2 — Voter ID

If you read my post last week, you know that there are six Consitutional amendments on the NC ballot in November, and that I believe we should vote all of them down.  Today, I’ll tackle one of the most controversial and sticky ones:  the Voter ID Amendment.

Voters will be asked to approve adding the following language to the NC Constitution:  “Voters offering to vote in person shall present photographic identification before voting. The General Assembly shall enact general laws governing the requirements of such photographic identification, which may include exceptions.”

The proposed Amendment poses many problems:

The Voter ID Amendment is not narrowly tailored to a compelling  state interest.

Voting is a fundamental right guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  When governments pass laws that impose burdens on fundamental rights, those laws must be narrowly tailored — that is, written carefully and specifically — to solve a compelling problem.  It’s kind of a balancing act — big problems may warrant more restrictive laws, but the general goal is that States should find solutions that restrict rights in the narrowest reasonable way that solves the problem.

The Voter ID amendment fails on this point.  There is no compelling government interest on display here: in the 2016 election, there was one single case of in-person voter fraud (the only kind a Voter ID law can prevent) out of almost 5 million votes cast.  There simply isn’t a problem with in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.

Unsurprisingly, proponents of Voter ID argue that a lack of actual voter fraud is irrelevant to this discussion because Voter ID laws make people feel like the voting system is secure.  This is, in a word, poppycock.  The argument treats NC’s citizens like toddlers afraid of the dark, with the NCGA as the parent wielding a bottle of homemade “monster spray.”  Everybody knows that monsters aren’t real, but the spray gives the child a (false) sense of security, so what’s the harm? But of course, there is harm.

The Voter ID Amendment Would Impose a Significant Burden on Voting Rights

According to one recent state study, NC has about 300,000 registered voters who lack an ID issued by the DMV.  Assuming that the NCGA decides that a DMV-issued ID is required to vote (more on this later) Each and every one of those folks would immediately become unable to vote if we pass Voter ID.  That’s 300,000 people whose ability to vote would be gone in the blink of an eye, to “solve” a 1-in-5-million problem.   And that number doesn’t even count the folks who aren’t yet registered and might never bother because they know they don’t have the right ID.  I guarantee you that number isn’t 0.

Voter ID proponents argue that this isn’t a big deal, that most of those 300,000 people can simply mosey on over to the DMV and get themselves an ID (oddly, this argument often goes hand in hand with the declaration that “If people want to vote badly enough, they’ll show it by getting an ID”  To this, I can only point out that fundamental rights need not be earned.)  But anyone who’s been reading the reports of day-long lines at NC DMV offices knows it isn’t that simple, it isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy.  (and at the risk of being snarky, may I point out that most of the strongest proponents of Voter ID laws already have ID?  It’s awfully easy to decide that a burden isn’t too heavy when you’ll never be the one carrying it).

And, by the by, the burden of obtaining ID isn’t limited to the actual time one spends in line at the DMV (and the travel time, fees and lost wages that doing so can require).  Many, many people, particularly the poor or elderly, don’t even have access to the background documents that would allow them to get a driver’s license or other ID card.  Birth records get lost, people change names, clerks make spelling errors, and all of these things take money and time to cure.  Getting ID is sometimes so difficult and so burdensome that there is actually an entire non-profit set up to help people obtain this precious documentation — I urge you all to check out Spread The Vote to get a taste of how much money and effort can go into obtaining ID.

So, we have an imaginary problem, and the “monster spray” fix proposed by the NCGA comes at the low, low price of disenfranchising 300,000 people unless and until they can spend enough money and time to prove they really want to vote.

The Amendment Wouldn’t Actually Solve Voter Fraud, Even if There Were Any

I mentioned above that in-person voter impersonation is the only kind of voter fraud that Voter ID can fix.  That’s because, if you look closely at its language, you can see that the Voter ID requirement applies only to in-person voting.  Why?  Beats me.  There were exactly as many cases of absentee voter impersonation fraud in 2016 as there were cases of in-person voter impersonation fraud (one of each), but only in-person voting is restricted.  This inconsistency renders the Voter ID amendment, so overly broad in every other respect, too narrow to accomplish its alleged purpose. (Yes, I am aware that you voters must provide some proof of name/address when requesting an absentee ballot, but no photo is required.)

We Already Have Mechanisms In Place to Detect, Deter and Punish Voter Fraud

Proponents of the Voter ID Amendment often make it seem as if Voter ID is the only possible way to make our elections secure, as if until the first Voter ID law passed, American elections were a free-for-all of fraud and abuse with absolutely no way that poor, beleaguered States could stop it.  But of course, this isn’t true.

When you register to vote (or the first time you vote after registering), you provide the State with your name, address, and proof that you are you and that you live where you say you live.  You attest, under penalty of perjury, that you are a U.S. citizen, eligible to vote, and that the information you have provided is true.  And when you show up to vote, you verify your name, address and eligibility to vote.  It’s against the law to commit voter fraud, and as we’ve seen, the State has mechanisms to identify and to prosecute people who break that law.  And it does all of that without preventing hundreds of thousands of citizens from exercising their right to vote.  Without any evidence that this system is broken, the “fix” is unnecessary at best, and harmful at worst.

And while we’re on the subject, proponents of Voter ID often point to the fact that there were of alleged cases of either non-citizens or felons voting in the 2016 election as proof that Voter ID is needed.  But again, there are already laws in place to address those situations and it’s not at all clear how (or if) Voter ID requirements would help.

The Amendment Gives the NCGA a Blank Check

Finally, we come to one of the reasons that this Amendment — not just Voter ID in general — is a bad idea:  we have absolutely no idea what a Voter ID regime would actually look like in NC if the Amendment passes.  The text of the Amendment didn’t come with any implementing legislation, only the promise that the NCGA would write a law to enforce our new Constitutional restriction.  And that’s a problem.

First, as a matter of policy, it’s a bad idea to vote for something when you have no information about what you’re actually voting for.  For example, the text of the Amendment says that the NCGA may include exceptions to Voter ID requirements.  We may hope that this means the NCGA will make allowances for people who lack the basic documents I mentioned earlier, such as birth certificates or proof of citizenship, but we cannot guarantee it.  Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

We also don’t know what kinds of IDs might be accepted for voting purposes, because the Amendment doesn’t say.  We do know that, when crafting their first stab at a Voter ID law, our NCGA asked researchers for data about how Black people in North Carolina voted and excluded the documents most likely to be held by Black people from the list of acceptable IDs.  A disgusted Federal Court struck down that law, noting that it targeted Black voters with almost surgical precision.  Who’s to say that, if given the chance, the NCGA won’t do the exact same thing again, only this time be smart enough to cover up the “smoking guns” that contributed to the previous law’s downfall?

We also know that the General Assembly’s Republicans, fearful that the voters may strip them of their veto-proof majority in the November election, has already scheduled a special session for November, so that its probable lame-duck members can cram through a Voter ID law without input from Democratic legislators (due in party to their illegal Gerrymandering, it is highly likely that the GOP will maintain a majority in the legislature next year, but if they lose the supermajority, they will be forced to craft legislation that can at least survive a gubernatorial veto and they really don’t want that).

In light of the deliberately vague nature of the Amendment, the NCGA’s past history of bad behavior on this topic, and their transparent plan to pass voting restrictions during a lame duck session, one can only assume that the GOP has skulduggery, not election integrity, on its mind when it proposed this Constitutional amendment.  Even if no other portion of this post is persuasive, that fact alone should give every North Carolinian reason to vote “NO.”

 

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