Scout Tufankjian / Polaris

NC voting rights groups turn to education in fight against voter ID law

Groups say North Carolina’s strict ID law will mostly affect elderly, minority, low-income and young voters

RALEIGH, N.C. — Even before it passed, opponents had taken to calling it the Monster Law.

But the 56-page bill that ultimately cleared the GOP-controlled General Assembly here last summer and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in August was, if possible, worse than what they had imagined.

Freed from having to clear election law changes with the Justice Department after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina lawmakers enacted what is considered by many the toughest voting restrictions in the United States.

“That was the opening for the Senate to then say, ‘OK, we can do anything. We can make this in our view the best’ — or in Common Cause’s view … the worst — ‘proposal in the land,’” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizens’ advocacy group. “We have the worst overall elections laws in the country and the most onerous voter ID in the land.”

In addition to requiring voters to have a North Carolina government-issued ID by 2016, the law eliminates same-day voter registration, cuts back the early voting period by seven days, invalidates ballots cast in the wrong precinct and requires voters to register at least 28 days before going to the polls in a primary or a general election.

Although several legal challenges to the law are wending their way through the court system — including a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department, voting rights activists in North Carolina are bracing to accept the law as the new reality in the state. Their efforts are now as focused on mitigating its effects as they are on finding a reprieve.

“We don’t have any illusions, particularly for the primary, that it’s going to be stopped or it will be reversed, and we’re not counting on that happening in November,” Phillips said.

Mary Klenz, the North Carolina–based second vice president of the League of Women Voters, also said that there was no counting on an injunction from the courts and that certainly there was no chance for repeal, with state government firmly in the hands of Republicans, who nationwide say such laws are needed to combat voter fraud.

“We were hoping that there would some kind of a stay of the Monster Bill. We’re working that part of it on one track,” she said. “But we’re not sitting around assuming this isn’t going to happen.”

Klenz added that she finds the current state of affairs especially dismaying because the League of Women Voters and others had worked over the last decade to increase turnout and participation among all groups.

“We have worked with legislators for more than 10 years to open up the voting system and the voting process to make it more accessible to everybody, and we had made what we considered some pretty good progress,” she said. “All of that has been overturned in one fell swoop. It can make you sad, but it makes me mad.”

Voting rights groups are ramping up their education campaigns for the summer and taking care to target their efforts at those who they believe will be disproportionately affected — the elderly, minority communities, low-income voters and young people.

The state of North Carolina has promised to provide free IDs to those in need, but to obtain them, prospective voters, who must be registered in the state, have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and provide documents to verify their identity (with a birth certificate, passport or Social Security card) and their residence in the state (with a utility or cable bill, housing lease or school records).  

Voters cannot be turned away from the polls for not having a proper ID until 2016, but poll workers will begin to ask for it starting this year.

“To even know that you have those IDs or know anything about this, you have to really be looking for it,” Phillips said.

To that end, several organizations, led by the good-governance group Democracy North Carolina, have banded together to launch Operation Jumpstart the Vote, a primarily volunteer-fueled effort to make sure that voters around the state are aware of the changes.  

“We’re not focusing on too much on policy at the moment. We recognize that’s not necessarily the most valuable,” said Ron Garcia-Fogarty, who is spearheading the effort for Democracy North Carolina. “We’re dealing with a lot of misinformation and a lot of confusion.”

Garcia-Fogarty said the initiative is focusing on extensive on-the-ground work, like hosting voter registration drives, canvassing, appearing at community meetings and working with faith-based organizations publicize the law. The effort has enlisted 960 volunteers in 61 counties since the law passed and distributed 300,000 wallet cards that outline the changes.

Meanwhile, some North Carolina legislators are doubling down on the argument that such measures are necessary to combat fraudulent votes. A recent report issued by the North Carolina Board of Elections said there were 35,570 people who voted in North Carolina in 2012 whose names and dates of birth were also found on the voter rolls of another state and 765 North Carolinian voters whose names, birth dates and last four digits of their Social Security number match those of voters from other states.

GOP lawmakers pointed to the findings as definitive evidence of double voting, although the Board of Elections is probing further into these cases to see if that is truly the case.

“While we are alarmed to hear evidence of widespread voter error and fraud, we are encouraged to see the common-sense law passed to ensure voters are who they say they are is working,” state House Speaker Thom Tillis and state Senate Leader Phil Berger said in a joint statement. “These findings should put to rest ill-informed claims that problems don’t exist and help restore the integrity of our elections process.”

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