Critics of a proposed voter photo ID law vowed Thursday to launch a vigorous effort to fight the proposal, saying it amounted to a 21st-century version of the poll tax used to keep blacks from voting.
The state NAACP leads a coalition of groups that said they planned to contest a voter ID bill in the legislature even though it is clear that the Republican majority has the votes to pass it and that GOP Gov. Pat McCrory has said he will sign it.
“We will fight them in the courts, we will fight them in the streets, and voters will fight them by turning out and voting,” said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a major national civil rights group that is legally challenging voter ID laws across the country. She described North Carolina as “ground zero” in the national fight.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, rejected Republican arguments that the requirement for a photo ID at the polls was designed to protect against voter fraud. He said that North Carolinians have voted for 237 years without requiring a photo ID and that the push for the law was a conservative backlash against increased black voter registration that grew out of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
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“What is going on here is a large number of African-Americans, Latinos and students who came into the electorate have scared people, have changed the electoral process,” Barber said. “And the only way to stop (it) is to try to put up barricades.”
He said he expected the Republican legislature to also push other bills to restrict voter franchise, such as limiting early voting, Sunday voting and same-day voter registration.
But Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, who is heading the voter ID effort, said the intent of the legislative effort was to “improve the integrity of the voting process,” not to discourage people from voting.
“The Republicans in the General Assembly are committed to making sure that every citizen who is entitled to vote has not only the opportunity to vote, but is encouraged and informed about the voting process,” Lewis said. “And perhaps most importantly, can have confidence that their vote counts in determining who wins elections.”
He called voter ID “a reasonable and logical step” to make sure that people are who they say they are. He said voter ID has broad public support.
Barriers to getting an ID
Barber, however, likened the voter ID bill to a poll tax, one of the tactics used in the early 20th century by white supremacists to prevent blacks from voting. That is because, Barber said, it would likely cost voters who do not have North Carolina driver’s licenses to get a state-approved identity card.
Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, said it was often costly and time-consuming in other states such as Pennsylvania for people get birth certificates – including women who had changed names – in order get voter ID cards.
The Advancement Project filed an ongoing suit against Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, and it has also brought voting rights actions in Ohio and Florida.
“We went to the (Pennsylvania) DMV offices to see how easy it was to get this ID,” Hair said. “What we found was that people were being turned away. They were being told they were not eligible because they were born in other states and did not have a birth certificate, or they were a student and did not have a driver’s license.”
But Lewis, the GOP lawmaker, said the legislature was committed to developing a system that would let voters get an ID at no direct cost to themselves. He said that in Georgia, which has had a voter ID law since 2006, fewer than 27,000 free photo IDs were distributed by the state.
GOP claims disputed
Barber said the proposed voter ID law also raised constitutional questions regarding equal protection, because no photo ID is required for an absentee ballot. How can one group of citizens be asked to show a photo ID when they show up at the polls, but not those who mail in their ballots? Barber asked.
Barber dismissed McCrory’s comments that it is not an imposition to ask voters to show a photo ID because they are required to show an ID before they can buy Sudafed or get on an airplane. Barber said that neither action is a constitutional right as voting is.
Barber said the only fraud were Republican assertions that there is widespread voter fraud – which he said was trumped up to try to pass new laws to restrict voting. He said there were already laws on the books making it a felony to commit voter fraud.
He also dismissed public opinion polls showing strong public support for voter IDs. Barber said if a poll was taken decades ago in North Carolina, it would have shown strong public support for racial segregation.
Opponents said they would seek to rally public opposition to a voter ID bill. The NAACP and Democracy North Carolina plan to distribute 200,000 fliers through 600 churches across the state and plan to hold a series of rallies. The fliers all tie the current controversy to the 1965 attack on civil rights marchers who were beaten by Alabama State Troopers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Meanwhile on Thursday, state Sen. Ben Clark, a Democrat from Fayetteville, filed an alternative bill that would allow voters the opportunity to either present an ID or have their picture taken before casting their ballot. Clark said the bill would both protect against fraud while ensuring that everyone would have an opportunity to vote.