North Carolina lawmakers approved a measure Friday that will allow voters to choose in November whether they want to amend the state’s constitution to require people to present photo identification in order to vote.
The measure, which passed with only GOP support, does not say what kinds of identification would be acceptable. Lawmakers would decide what kinds of identification voters could use only once the ballot measure passes.
Gerry Cohen, who served as counsel to the North Carolina Legislature for nearly four decades, said the amendment is an attempt to block the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court from striking down any voter ID requirement.
“If it passes, it will basically immunize voter ID, specifically photo voter ID, from any challenge under state constitutional grounds,” he said.
The proposal comes just under two years after a federal appeals court struck down a previous photo ID requirement. That law, passed in 2013, required anyone who voted in the state to produce one of seven types of photo identification, including a driver’s license, passport or military ID.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said North Carolina lawmakers purposely chose types of ID that African-American voters were more likely to lack. The court said the requirement was part of a larger set of voting restrictions, including shortening early voting and eliminating same-day registration, that targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
Allison Riggs, an attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a group that has challenged North Carolina voting restrictions, said Republicans were wary of losing a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature and wanted to make sure a voter ID requirement stuck.
“A later Legislature could decide to repeal a voter ID law. It’s not as easy to undo a change to the constitution.”
Republicans who backed the measure say a photo identification requirement is needed to prevent voter fraud and bring North Carolina in line with 34 other states that have voter ID requirements. The details of the requirements vary by state, however, and Mississippi and Missouri are the only ones to have the requirement in their state constitutions.
Cohen said it was “very unusual” for lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot without specific details, either in the amendment itself or accompanying legislation.
“Is it going to be only a passport or is it going to include Costco photo IDs?” he said of the unknown requirements.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R), who co-sponsored the bill, said the majority of North Carolina voters supported a voter ID requirement.
But Riggs said the lack of details was an attempt to make voter ID more palatable.
“You ask voters if they think a voter ID requirement is reasonable and 70 percent will say yes,” Riggs said. “But if you say, ‘There are a lot of elderly people, a lot of disabled folks who don’t have ID, do you think it’s reasonable to disenfranchise them?’ Then the numbers change. The more details you put before voters, the more they realize the implications of what’s going to happen.”
Republicans pushing the bill have said they want all eligible voters to cast a ballot.
“We want to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to cast their vote once, and that those votes cumulatively determine who wins and loses our elections,” state Rep. David Lewis (R) said during debate on the bill. “We want extraordinary turnout, because participation is key to confidence in, and legitimacy of, our elections.”
The only statewide races on the ballot this year are judicial contests, and Cohen said he believes Republicans put the measure on the ballot to drive supporters to the polls. He thinks that could backfire because Democratic voters could be energized to block the requirement.
Nationally, several studies and investigations have shown voter fraud is not a widespread problem. In North Carolina, a state audit of the 2016 election found just two cases of in-person voter impersonation that was referred to prosecutors. Nearly 4.8 million people voted in the 2016 general election in the state.
“There is scant evidence of in-person voter fraud in North Carolina, but there is plenty of evidence that voter ID will limit access to voting for some of the state’s most marginalized voters, including people of color, rural and low-income voters, the elderly, and people with disabilities, all of whom disproportionately lack and face challenges to getting a photo ID,” Sarah Gillooly, director of political advocacy and strategy for the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU said in a statement. “The General Assembly shouldn’t be given a blank check to turn back the clock on voting rights.”