Raleigh, N.C. — Despite impassioned pleas from Democratic lawmakers and a raft of attempts to weaken it, legislation that would require voters to present photo identification at the polls was approved Wednesday by the House Elections Committee on Wednesday.
House Bill 589, which passed on a party-line vote, must still go through the Finance and Appropriations committees, but House leaders say they hope to have the bill on the House floor by next week.
Voter ID has been debated repeatedly in recent weeks, with the House Elections Committee conducting more than eight hours of public hearings, as well as gathering input from officials in Florida, Georgia and Indiana about how ID requirements work in those states.
Democrats continued the debate Wednesday, with Reps. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, and Deborah Ross, D-Wake, questioning the constitutionality of requiring an ID to vote.
They noted that North Carolina's constitution sets up the qualifications for someone to vote and gives lawmakers leeway only in establishing registration guidelines.
Co-sponsor Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, maintained that the ID requirement isn't a new qualification and is only evidence that voters meet the legal qualifications. The U.S. Supreme Court and courts in other states have upheld voter ID laws, he said.
"Is letting somebody vote but not counting their ballot (without an ID) sufficient to say you're staying within the constitution as to who has a right to vote?" Ross asked.
"I will fight to the death because a lot of folks I know died for that right to vote," Michaux said, recalling his involvement in the civil rights efforts of 50 years ago.
"This is the first step in suppressing the vote," he said. "We know that you have the power to do it, and you're going to do it whether it's good, bad or indifferent."
"We not are trying to suppress anybody. We are not trying to oppress anybody. It has nothing to do with race," said Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven. "Stop trying to debase the issue."
The bill, dubbed the Voter Information Verification Act, or VIVA, would require IDs with every election held after January 2016. It would allow people to present various state-issued IDs, such as public university IDs and state employee IDs, but private university IDs would not qualify.
A Democratic amendment that would have allowed public high-school IDs to be used for voting was narrowly defeated, with committee Co-chairman Tim Moore casting the tie-breaking vote against it.
Bill sponsors also eliminated tribal cards from the list of approved IDs, noting that only one Native American tribe in North Carolina is federally recognized and some of the cards don't meet the minimum requirements lawmakers want in the approved IDs.
The latest version also removes an earlier requirement that voters would have to attest under the penalty of perjury to "financial hardship" in order to get a free voter ID – as well as free copy of a birth certificate to establish their identity for the ID. Otherwise, they would be expected to pay for the ID. Some experts said that requirement could be construed as a poll tax, which would be unconstitutional.
The bill now says voters who attest that they need the ID for voting and that they have no other approved ID can get one for free, regardless of ability to pay.
Approved forms of IDs that have expired would be accepted up to 10 years from their date of issuance or date of expiration, whichever is later. For voters over 70, a photo ID that was valid at the time they were 70 will be considered valid indefinitely.
Sponsors amended the bill to allow people with religious objections to having their photo taken to notify elections officials at least 25 days before an election so that would be noted in the voter rolls.