Raleigh, N.C. — As lawmakers rushed to adjourn for the summer, lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to drastic changes in how voting will be conducted in future elections in North Carolina.
After more than two-and-a-half hours of debate, the House voted 73-41 on party lines late Thursday to agree with dozens of changes made by Senate Republicans to a bill that originally simply required voters to show photo identification at the polls. It was approved by the Senate earlier Thursday, 33-14, also on party lines.
House Bill 589 sparked impassioned, emotional debate in both chambers.
In the House, the only Republican to speak on the measure was Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, who has been his chamber's lead drafter for elections legislation. Responding to the assertion that people were scared about the new regulations, Lewis said that was because they had been misled.
"They've been told that this bill would somehow deny them the right to vote," Lewis said. "They've been told that (the voter ID requirement) is a poll tax, when even the Supreme Court has told us that it is not."
Parts of the bill limit the days available for early voting and define which IDs are required to vote in person. Democrats blasted those as voter suppression measures. Lewis said they were merely common-sense precautions.
"We're going to continue to stand on the principles and the belief that the people of this state are smart enough to know who they want to vote for ... and that they care enough to get to the polls and vote," he said. "The difference, my friends, is that the proponents of this bill believe in the people."
Lewis had listened the better part of the evening to speeches like one from Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, who recalled fighting for voting rights in the 1960s.
“I want you to understand what this bill means to people. We have fought for, died for and struggled for our right to vote,” Michaux told the Republican majority. "You can take these 57 pages of abomination and confine them to the streets of hell for all eternity."
Republican leaders said the purpose of the bill is to secure and streamline elections, arguing that photo IDs will increase voters' confidence in the system, inspiring greater turnout, not less. But Democrats pointed to many provisions in the bill that are apparently unrelated to ballot security.
Rep. Garland Pierce noted the bill would limit Sunday voting, often used by black churches for "Souls to the Polls" drives.
"What does [Souls to the Polls] have to do with voter ID?" asked Pierce, D-Scotland. “This is not about voter ID. This is about voter suppression.“
"This is the most pointedly, obviously partisan bill I've ever seen," said Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake.
In the Senate, the lengthy debate featured competing visions of voter suppression.
"Voting for the people I represent has been a struggle all our lives," said Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford. "If we have to fight for it, we will, but it shouldn't be that way."
Bill backers insisted the measures would ensure that elections remain above-board.
"It's not repressive at all," Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett, said, adding that elections cannot be run "like 'American Idol,' where you can dial it in and there's no way to know who votes how many times."
Every fraudulent vote amounts to "fractional disenfranchisement" by diluting the value of each legitimate ballot cast, said Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga.
But Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, noted only three pages of the 56-page bill deal with voter ID. The remainder would only make it harder for people to vote, she said.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said the far-reaching bill makes North Carolina the "poster child" for any congressional updates to the Voting Rights Act, noting that the U.S. Department of Justice is already preparing a complaint against the state because of the legislation's impact on minority voting.
The bill cuts the early voting period from 17 to 10 days, although counties would still be required to provide the same number of hours for early voting. It also prohibits counties from extending early voting hours on the Saturday before Election Day to accommodate crowds and eliminates same-day voter registration during early voting.
Other provisions in the revamped bill include the following:
- Eliminate pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, who currently can register to vote before they turn 18.
- Outlaw paid voter registration drives.
- Eliminate straight-ticket voting.
- Eliminate provisional voting if someone shows up at the wrong precinct.
- Prohibit counties from extending poll hours by one hour on Election Day in extraordinary circumstances, such as in response to long lines. Those in line at closing time would still be allowed to vote.
- Allow any registered voter of a county to challenge the eligibility of a voter rather than just a voter of the precinct in which the suspect voter is registered.
- Move the presidential primary to first Tuesday after South Carolina's primary if that state holds its primary before March 15. That would mean North Carolina would have two primaries during presidential elections.
- Study electronic filing for campaign returns.
- Increase the maximum allowed campaign contribution per election from $4,000 to $5,000. The cap will be adjusted for inflation every two years, starting in 2015.
- Loosen disclosure requirements in campaign ads paid for by independent committees.
- Repeal the publicly funded election program for appellate court judges.
- Repeal the requirement that candidates endorse ads run by their campaigns.
The voter ID requirement is more restrictive than the proposal the House passed in April by prohibiting university students from using their college IDs.
"This bill is not about election reform. What it's about is systematically creating artificial barriers ... and impeding the right to vote," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said the legislation guarantees that legitimate votes count. Stein asked him how preventing high school students from registering to vote in civics class and ending straight-ticket voting increased public confidence in elections.
"If we've voted for over 200 years in one day and we now can't vote in a week, something's wrong," Tillman responded, not answering Stein's question.
Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, tried to change some of the campaign finance provisions, saying lawmakers need to avoid the perception that big money controls elections, but Republicans defeated his amendments.
In the House, Rep. Nathan Baskerville, D-Vance, also pointed to the the campaign finance provisions, which allow for unlimited corporate contributions to political parties. Voters, he said, would object to a bill "making it harder for folks to vote and easier for the very wealthy to buy influence."
Democrats in both chambers warned that the sweeping changes would eventually hurt Republican voting efforts as well. While early voting is slightly more popular with Democrats, it's used by a majority of the state's electorate.
"We sit here and debate this bill almost as if you all have one set of voters and we have another," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. "You aren't just doing this to our folks; you're doing it to your folks."
“It’s going to bite you back one day. What goes around, comes around,” Pierce warned House Republicans. “Let the people vote.”
Sen. Blue gave the analogy of a group of people dividing up property where the one who drew the lines of division had to let everyone else pick the piece of land they wanted.
"Be careful how you stack things. You don't know how it will get stacked against you," he said.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, turned that analogy around, noting that his mother split a cookie for him and his brother, but the brother stuffed both halves in his mouth.
"That's what we're trying to prevent here," Brock said, saying everyone should have equal access to vote and that elections should be fair.