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Why the state GOP's voter ID bill is a costly and unnecessary misstep 

 

Republicans introduced a voter ID bill last week in the state House of Representatives, with Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte as a primary sponsor. The bill requires poll workers to ask voters for a photo ID. Those without a photo ID would have to cast a provisional ballot and sign an affidavit affirming their identity, under threat of a felony arrest for giving false information. The bill shifts the issuance of voter photo IDs to local boards of election (rather than work within the DMV's current photo ID program); takes money from funds meant to assist disabled voters, and is so under-funded, it is likely to both fail to adequately educate voters on the new voting requirements and shift most of the expense of providing new voter IDs to the various counties. Opponents of the bill, however, say the primary problem is that the bill is designed to solve a problem — widespread voter fraud — that, considering available documented facts, is nearly nonexistent.

It is an article of faith among Republicans nationwide that voter fraud is a rampant problem. Hard evidence for their belief, in terms of follow-up investigations that found actual voter fraud, shows a minuscule problem at worst. Rep. Killian, however, is totally convinced. Killian recently told an Observer reporter, "I have heard many, many stories about voter fraud," echoing similar reports of rumored voter fraud from other GOP House members.

Here is how common and widespread voter fraud has become in Charlotte-Mecklenburg: In the 2008 election, more than 400,000 votes were cast in Mecklenburg County — the most in its history; County Board of Elections Public Information Manager Kristin Mavromatis said that out of those 400,000-plus votes, a whopping eight instances of possible voter fraud were reported and investigated.

"Of those eight instances, all but one were mistakes due to poll worker error, not fraud on the voters' part," explained Mavromatis. "And the one that could have been construed as voter fraud was a 95-year-old lady who, it seems, was taken to early voting by a relative, and then taken to vote again on Election Day by someone else. And those eight were a lot; we normally have one or two instances per election."

We asked, "So what about claims of widespread voter fraud in Mecklenburg County?" Mavromatis replied, "It's just not happening."

Statewide, the numbers are much the same. Investigations by the N.C. Board of Elections found that from 2004 and 2010, a mere five votes per million cast involved fraud that would have been preventable by a voter ID.

Voter ID supporters have said they don't believe those figures, preferring to trust in cold, hard hearsay. Opponents claim that the bill isn't really about fraud, so much as it's about keeping some traditionally Democratic constituencies (the poor, students, the elderly, people of color, the disabled) from voting.

Doug Wilson, a vice chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, said, "The voter ID bill, if it becomes law, is going to affect a lot of people in low-income areas, particularly African-Americans, as well as people in nursing homes and students, and those are voting blocs that traditionally vote in high numbers for Democratic candidates. We feel it's a way to suppress the Democratic vote and, specifically, to keep the president from winning the state again in 2012."

Rep. Killian says the law is necessary. "People want to know that the vote they're casting is credited against their name and that no one else can vote on their behalf," he said. "In 2008, there was a significant spike in reports to the Board of Elections [sent] out to district attorneys' offices to investigate."

Most of those investigations, however, found the allegations to be without merit, and State Elections Director Gary Bartlett says there were a mere 18 cases of double-voting in 2008 out of 4.2 million votes cast.

Ineffective and discriminatory

An extensive report by the Institute for Southern Studies estimated that an effective voter ID program — one which would provide free IDs for those without them and would be publicized extensively to voters around the state — would cost N.C. taxpayers $20 million or more over three years. That kind of expense would have been tough for the GOP to justify in a year when teachers are being laid off for lack of funds. So in order to forego the necessary costs to implement voter ID, they essentially under-funded the whole thing.

It is unclear how many N.C. citizens lack a photo ID. The State Board of Elections says it could be as many as 1 million people. Democracy North Carolina estimates the number at around 400,000. In order to vote, those 400,000-1 million citizens would need to get new IDs. Rather than go through the DMV's in-place photo ID program, however, the voter ID bill sets up a whole new system in which county boards of election will be given photo ID machines, forms, supplies and training to produce needed voter ID cards (which will not be valid as an official ID anywhere but at polling places). On top of the cost of the cards, N.C. would need to spend more to update forms and websites; accommodate longer lines at polling places; and hire and train staff to detect fake IDs and handle provisional ballots. In 2009, Missouri, which has 2 million fewer voters than N.C., estimated a cost of $3.4 million for the cards.

The biggest expense of a voter ID program is for an education and publicity campaign to inform voters of the new requirements, and thus avoid widespread confusion on Election Day and keep legitimately registered voters from being turned away at the polls. Missouri estimated it would need $16.9 million for an effective outreach to its voters.

The proposed N.C. bill allocates $600,000 for the whole shebang — new cards, equipment and training, and an education and publicity effort. Where is the $600,000 coming from? Part of it will be shifted from money allocated to provide assistance to voters with disabilities, and from unspent funds in the N.C. Voter-Owned Elections Fund, which helps grassroots campaigns and reduces the role of regulated industries in elections.

Bob Hall, the respected head of Democracy North Carolina, has been around elections and election funding issues for decades. Democracy North Carolina is the nonpartisan group that investigated and called out Republican House Speaker Harold Brubaker's money laundering, Democratic House Speaker Jim Black's illegal fundraising, and the Democratic Party's bogus campaign account for former Gov. Mike Easley. Hall told the House Elections Committee last week that the $600,000 figure is "absurdly low" and "[an] indication of what a sham this bill is."

Rep. Killian disagrees, saying $600,000 will be enough to implement voter ID and that the figure is based on the costs of Georgia's voter ID law. "I'm a fiscal conservative, and I had concerns about costs," said Killian, "but the Georgia law convinced me in the end that the costs were not going to be as significant as some people might seem to want it to be."

Chris Kromm, executive director of the ISS, however, points out that Georgia's voter ID bill anticipated that "it will cost that state's taxpayers over $2 million in 2011 alone, and that's leaving out over 17 major implementation expenses that are being shuffled off to local election officials." One result of N.C. Republicans low-balling the funding is that county boards of election will probably be saddled with the rest of the bill.

Another major drawback of the bill is that the law likely could be ruled discriminatory in a couple of different ways. First, a number of studies, including a recent one by Democracy North Carolina, show that students, the elderly, people of color, people with disabilities and the poor are less likely to have a driver's license — and would generally have a harder time traveling somewhere to get one. That, frankly, is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Critics also note that the voter ID law would not apply to absentee voters, and in fact would make it easier to get an absentee ballot. This is a problem because, as Bob Hall told the Elections Committee last week, "... here's the truth: The rate of somebody impersonating someone else is 10 times higher for people voting with absentee ballots than those who vote in person." Voter ID opponents say it's no coincidence that most absentee ballots in North Carolina favor Republicans, who are the ones proposing the bill.

Why now?

One critical question remaining unanswered about a voter ID program in North Carolina is "Why now?" Why, when the state budget is being severely slashed, would the GOP want to crank up a new program, no matter how under-funded? Why would Republicans act on such a divisive issue, when the hard evidence overwhelmingly shows that voter fraud in N.C. doesn't even rise to the level of "insignificant"?

As state Democratic Party vice chair Doug Wilson told us, the Democratic establishment thinks Republicans are out to suppress the number of voters by singling out likely Democratic voters. He points out the well-known fact that a lower voter turnout generally favors the GOP.

Wilson and the Democrats may be correct, but here is another idea: fear of the Tea Parties. It's no secret that the GOP owes its legislative majority, here and in other states, to large turnouts in 2010 by far-right voters who favor Tea Party ideas. One of those ideas is the suspicion, or rather the dark fantasy, that President Obama was only elected through massive voter fraud. Such fevered dreams increasingly drive our politics these days, and all the voter ID commotion is just the latest example.

How other states handle voter IDs

• As of Nov. 22, 2010, the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 27 states require registered voters to show some form of ID each time they vote in person. But 22 of the 27 offer much easier access to voting than the current N.C. GOP proposal to show a photo ID or voter registration card.

• 23 of the 50 states don't require the voter to show a document each time they vote; 27 states do.

• 12 of those 27 states allow voters to present a wide range of documents, identical or very similar to the Help American Vote Act (HAVA) range of documents.

• 10 additional states among the 27 allow the voter who doesn't have the required ID to sign an affidavit or sworn statement, under penalty of a felony, that they are who say they are, and then vote a regular ballot.

• Two other states (Oklahoma as of July 2011 and South Carolina) require either a current government-issued photo ID OR a voter registration card.

• One state (Florida) requires a photo ID, but it can be a buyer's club ID, student ID, neighborhood association ID, entertainment ID, etc.

• Only two states (Georgia and Indiana) require a government-issued photo ID. In these last five states, the voter can cast a provisional ballot, but it likely won't count unless they return in a matter of days to present the proper ID to the election office.

Info from the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=16602).

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