A Republican bill requiring voters to present photo identification passed the North Carolina House Wednesday in a vote that split mostly along party lines.
The Republican-controlled House approved the bill 81-36 following nearly three hours of amendments and partisan-charged debate. The bill now heads to the Senate, where Republicans also hold a substantial majority.
Most Democratic amendments to ease restrictions failed, but one from Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, restored state tribal ID to the forms of ID accepted under the bill. He later crossed party lines to vote in favor of the bill.
Voter ID legislation has sharply divided Republicans and Democrats nationally and in North Carolina where the GOP won control of the legislature in 2010. A previous attempt by Republicans to enact voter ID failed in 2011 when then-Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed it. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory supports voter ID.
Republicans argue the bill will prevent fraud while Democrats and civil rights groups say the real motivation is suppressing turnout among those less likely to have ID. Also stoking Democratic opposition are memories of Jim Crow era voting restrictions among older African-American representatives.
The bill would require voters to present one of nine forms of state-issued ID starting in 2016. IDs from public colleges and Native American tribes are also accepted. Voters could cast provisional ballots if they don't bring ID to the polls but would have to return later to a board of election with ID for their ballot to be counted.
The bill, estimated to cost upwards of $3.7 million, also authorizes a newly created board to lead a voter education campaign and reimburses Division of Motor Vehicle branches that will offer free ID. Republicans say those costs could be less substantial, depending on how many people seek the free ID.
Also among Democrats voting for the bill were Rep. William Brisson, D-Bladen; Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond; Rep. Ken Waddell, D-Columbus; and Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare, who successfully corralled Republican support for an amendment bolstering advertising of DMV hours in rural counties during the lead-up to implementation.
Among the failed Democratic amendments were measures to accept private college ID, allow poll workers to vouch for the identity of voters and require either a driver's license or a notarized attestation for absentee ballots. Democrats argued absentee voting is more often used by Republicans, and bringing it in line with the rules for in-person voting would help remove the perception of partisanship from the bill.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said public hearings and meetings on the issue were handled well, but a vote in favor of the bill creates new barriers for some to satisfy the irrational fears of many.
"If you look at those two public hearings, anecdotal tales abounded, but facts were almost never seen," he said. "And so, in a sense, this bill is using a sledge hammer to hit either a real or imaginary fly on a glass coffee table."
Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, said the full extent of the problem isn't known, and defending against a potential problem is common sense.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he said. "We know that voter fraud exists elsewhere, and we should not think that we are immune."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has asserted the bill runs afoul of the constitution. The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, watched the proceedings in a tense, standing-room only House gallery.
Joining him was a group of students from the NAACP's collegiate chapter wearing tape over their mouths to symbolize voter suppression. After the vote, Barber vowed the voting restrictions would be challenged in court and additional acts of nonviolent opposition would ensue.
"This bill amounts to nothing more than voter suppression, no matter how calm and apparently civil this debate appeared today," Barber told reporters. "This bill is uncivil, unconstitutional, unnecessary and we will challenge it. They have crossed the moral line in the sand."
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett and House Elections Committee chairman, cited a federal court decision upholding a similar voter ID law in Georgia and rebutted claims that the bill amounts to a poll tax.
"Such an argument represents a dramatic overstatement of what fairly constitutes a poll tax," he said, reading from the decision that also says the cost of time and transportation don't qualify as an unconstitutional burden.