Legislature should be cautious with vote ID laws

Mar. 20, 2013 @ 09:31 AM

The N.C. General Assembly appears poised to enact new voter identification requirements in the near future. While it is still unclear what form the legislation will take or what new requirements will look like, it is clear that whatever is passed will ultimately have a major impact on the way elections are conducted in North Carolina.

To help inform them in crafting a voter ID bill, members of the House Elections Committee recently heard public testimony from nearly 100 concerned citizens. The next day, that same committee welcomed five election-law experts to present data and opinions both for and against a prospective voter ID law. This is a positive step and hopefully additional hearings will be held once a bill is introduced and citizens know exactly what new identification requirements are being proposed.

No matter what, this is a decision that should not be taken lightly by leaders in the General Assembly, and it is encouraging that they are not rushing the process. Many people are anxiously waiting to see what legislation will eventually be introduced, but the most important thing is that any bill requiring identification to vote does not leave any eligible voters out of the process. Our democracy is only legitimate as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to participate.

The General Assembly would be wise to heed the experiences of other states that recently enacted strict photo identification requirements for voting and learn from the multitude of lawsuits surrounding the issue that have played out in state and federal courts over the last few years. North Carolina does not need a protracted legal battle over voter ID or additional voter confusion. While it's not as high profile as other election years, our state does have municipal elections in 2013 and we need to ensure voters have a clear idea of what will be required at the polls this fall.

Along those lines, perhaps one of the best things the legislature can do on voter ID is phase in any new requirements over a period of time. For example, if the legislature decides on a strict, government-issued photo identification requirement, it should not be formally required until the 2016 election, giving voters and election officials at least one major election year to ensure all voters who need it have time to obtain the necessary identification.

Of course, all of this should be a moot point since our current election system does a good job of balancing security and accessibility. But since new legislation appears inevitable, hopefully the General Assembly will approach new voter ID requirements with caution and concern for those in the state without a photo ID and who would have difficulty obtaining one.

Providing free IDs to those in need is a good start, and is necessary to avoid constitutional challenges anyway. Where the rubber meets the road will be in implementation and voter education. The General Assembly must allocate significant and sufficient resources to ensure every single voter who needs an ID to comply can obtain one without undue burden and that every single voter is made aware of any new requirements well in advance of whatever Election Day the new law will go into effect.

There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote and Election Day should be a time when we are all equal. Any changes to our election system must ensure that not even a single voter is turned away or left out of the process. Anything less will be a disservice to our state, our constitution and our democracy.


• Brent Laurenz is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping citizens fully participate in democracy.