by David Samuelson
Every election, North Carolinians show up at the polls with their voter registration cards in hand, only to be told that identification is not required. Others who have misplaced their registration cards search their wallets for alternative forms of ID, certain that they will need something before they can cast their votes. Veterans of the process reassure them: “Don’t worry. You just have to tell the person with the list your name and address.” No ID required.
North Carolina now stands with a minority of states that do not require voter identification at the polls. Although the vast majority of North Carolina voters believe that identification should be required, the General Assembly remains committed to minimum standards that require no proof of identification in order to register or to vote. This decision stands in contrast to policies that require North Carolinians to show identification for activities ranging from applying for Medicaid to purchasing cold medicine.
Other States Take Action
In contrast to North Carolina, a majority of states have enacted laws requiring that voters show some form of identification at the polls. Over the last 18 months, Michigan, Arizona, Indiana and Georgia have successfully fought to join the ranks of states with voter identification standards more stringent than those required under the federal 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Court rulings in these states have focused nationwide attention on this issue.
In a 5-2 decision in July of this year, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional to require voters to show valid photo identification before casting ballots. Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Young stated that having a photo ID requirement for voting is “a reasonable, nondiscriminatory restriction designed to preserve the purity of elections and to prevent abuses of the electoral franchise.”
Michigan’s ruling followed a similar decision in April 2006 in Indiana, where a federal judge of the U.S. District Court of Southern Indiana upheld Indiana’s voter ID regulations. The state’s law requires all voters to show valid photo identification before voting.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also weighed in on this issue. On October 20, 2006, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona legislation that requires voters to prove their U.S. citizenship before registering to vote and to show valid photo identification before casting ballots. With this ruling, the Supreme Court set national precedent for the legitimacy of voter photo identification laws by overturning a previous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that suspended Arizona’s ID requirements on the basis of disenfranchisement.
Even as the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision, however, federal courts in Georgia were moving to block similar legislation. House Bill 244, which required voters to show photo ID before voting, passed the Georgia legislature in March 2005. It came under immediate attack from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who likened the legislation to a poll tax that would be used to discourage participation among minorities, the poor and the elderly.
In response, the Georgia legislature passed Senate Bill 84, providing for the distribution of free Georgia identification cards to those currently without a government-issued ID card. This measure was deemed inadequate, and on October 27, 2006 – one week after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s law – the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld an injunction from U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy barring Georgia from enforcing its photo ID law on grounds that it was discriminatory and disenfranchising. In September 2007, after Murphy determined that Georgia had “made exceptional efforts” to inform voters of the photo ID requirement – and after a similar case was dismissed by the Georgia Supreme Court – the district court removed the injunction. “Plaintiffs simply have failed to prove that the photo ID requirement unduly or significantly burdens the right to vote,” stated Murphy’s opinion. Georgia may now move forward with its new voting requirements.
David Brackett, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in Georgia, disagreed with the district court’s decision: “We think it’s going to result in the disenfranchisement of a significant number of elderly and minorities in Georgia who are registered to vote and who desire to vote in person” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer expressed similar views regarding his state’s voter ID law, calling it “nothing more than a poll tax and … part of an ongoing strategy by Michigan Republicans to disenfranchise minority and older voters” (Detroit News). (Republicans hold a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court.)
In all states that require proof of identity, a mechanism is in place for voters who do not have documentation. Despite this fact, Democrats continue to argue that asking voters to show valid photo identification before voting is discriminatory and liken such laws to Jim Crow-era poll taxes. If such arguments carry strong emotional appeal in southern states like Georgia, it is curious that even Democrats in Michigan are using such rhetoric to some effect.
While the “poll tax” accusation paints a powerful picture, it ignores the reality of today’s technologically savvy society. Other policies already require some of North Carolina’s most marginalized citizens to possess photo IDs or the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. In order to obtain Economic Assistance, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits, services that are geared towards low income or otherwise vulnerable populations, an applicant must show a photo ID when applying in person.1 The burden of producing proof of identification for these services is not considered too onerous for residents so destitute that they rely on government subsistence. These identification requirements also mean that many marginalized citizens already possess photo ID or other identification.
Lack of Identification Facilitates Fraud
North Carolinians may be surprised to learn that, although they cannot get library cards or purchase boxes of Sudafed without showing valid photo identification, they can go to the polls to choose their local, state and federal representatives without ever having done so. Not only can they vote without showing identification, they can register to vote without showing proof of identity. Only first-time voters who register by mail and do not provide verification of their identification with their mail-in voter registration must provide some form of ID at the polls – and this identification can be a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter.
As one of the 24 states that still apply only the minimum HAVA standards to their election laws, North Carolina has chosen a policy that is open to all kinds of fraud – from multiple voting to voting by non-citizens.
The only information a voter is required to give in order to vote is his name and address – the very information that is made available as a matter of public record from government records. (Other descriptive information is available to poll officials as a cursory check, but nothing other than undocumented name and address actually affirms voter identity.) This creates the potential for an individual to vote multiple times under different names.
In a decision that may increase the potential for voter fraud, this year the General Assembly passed Registration and Voting at One-Stop Sites (HB 91/S.L. 2007-253), which allows people to show up during the early voting period, register to vote and vote all in the same visit. Voters registering in this manner are required to show valid documents that states their names and current addresses – but which are not required to have a photo. They are then able to cast ballots immediately, allowing no time for election officials to verify the legitimacy of their information. While the ballot would be “retrievable” if the voter is later found to be ineligible, the potential for fraud still exists. An amendment to HB 91 proposed by Representative Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) would have required that same-day registrants show a photo ID or affirm their identity if they are indigent and do not have a photo ID. The amendment failed 51 to 62 along party lines.
Most Voters Want To Show ID
According to Civitas DecisionMaker polling data, the vast majority of North Carolina voters strongly disapprove of our current voter ID requirements. When asked whether or not a person who wishes to vote should be required to show a photo ID before being allowed to cast a ballot, 86 percent of respondents answered affirmatively. When asked if they supported same day registration and voting legislation without photo identification and proof of citizenship requirements, 87 percent of voters answered that they did not.
With its current legislation, North Carolina is not only ignoring the opinion of the vast majority of its voters. It is also choosing to remain part of a minority of states operating under election identification requirements that lend themselves to fraud and manipulation.
David Samuelson is a former Civitas intern studying economics at Furman University.
1According to the Wake County Human Services Department, those applying in person must show photo ID. Applicants who mail in their applications must include copies of birth certificates, social security numbers, and documentation of residency.