With state elections bill sleight of hand, GOP seeks to revive enjoined voter ID law

With state elections bill sleight of hand, GOP seeks to revive enjoined voter ID law

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Republicans add language in effort to circumvent two court injunctions; final vote today

What started as a bipartisan effort to address the challenge of administering an election during the COVID-19 pandemic has devolved into a battle over another Republican attempt to require North Carolinians to show a photo ID to cast a ballot in November. 

House Bill 1169 is a bill that, for the most part, addresses concerns raised by voting rights advocates: It allocates funding for the state and county boards of election to hold the November general election during a pandemic. It alters the requirements for absentee, voting-by-mail so that only one witness will be required. It provides poll workers more flexibility, and it allows voters to request blank absentee ballots by mail, email, fax or online portal.

Where the measure veers from addressing COVID-19 concerns altogether is in Section 10, which resurrects the photo voter ID law and adds a new form of acceptable identification: government public assistance IDs. 

House Democrats knew their Republican colleagues were adding the language to the bill; they even vetted it with outside attorneys and organizations. No one raised concerns, and the House went on to pass the measure 116-3. 

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said when the language was presented, it wasn’t understood to be something that Republicans could use in an immediate effort to circumvent two existing injunctions (one in federal court and one in state court) that have barred the use of  voter ID in 2020.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford)

Cue the Senate floor debate Wednesday evening. Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell) bluntly told his colleagues that the courts struck down their voter ID law because public assistance IDs weren’t included as acceptable.

“To be extremely clear, we disagree with the courts’ conclusion that the implementing legislation is in any way discriminatory, so to remove any doubt, we are adding any ID card issued by the U.S. or state government for a program of public assistance to address the courts’ concerns,” Daniel said. “This is an ID that was specifically requested to be added to the list of acceptable IDs by Democrats during debate over the original implementing legislation.”

Harrison, a primary sponsor of the measure along with Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), said after the Senate voted 35-12 on the bill’s second reading (the third and final vote is scheduled for today) that House Democrats had no idea about the real intent behind the provision.

“Nobody raised an issue about it until the bill was filed,” she said in a phone interview. “There was time to pull this. We did not at the time realize the import of the photo ID provision. … It’s just unfortunate.”

‘You’re taking shots again’

Several Senate Democrats presented amendments to HB 1169 to either remove or alter the photo ID provision so that it couldn’t be used in the upcoming election. But Republicans voted to table them all without consideration. 

Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell)

The only Democratic amendment Senate Republicans said they would consider is one presented by Sen. Erica Smith (D-Beaufort) to enable North Carolinians to get a photo ID through an online process. Daniel said he didn’t understand the language she presented, so they would hold the third reading vote for a day to work on it.

Daniel, in his Senate floor debate, accused Democrats of sending mixed signals with respect to voter ID.

“I’m not really sure what to think,” Daniel said. “The opposition to this provision is either an attempt to prevent holders of public assistance IDs from using them to vote if voter ID ever becomes a requirement or it’s a disingenuous attempt to maintain the litigation position of outside groups seeking to undermine the will of the voters of the state of North Carolina and the voter ID law.”

Black Democratic members of both the House and Senate made very clear in their debates where they stood on the voter ID issue. 

“So often times in this body, what we do is take a couple of steps forward and then we step back into the mud,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford). “I strongly object and always have to the whole idea of voter ID because of the disenfranchisement, and what we see going on in this country is an outrage of disenfranchisement.”

She passionately took her white colleagues to task and said they “messed up what could have been a good bill.” 

Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford)

“Why would you do this to people?” Robinson asked. “Why would you do this to the students who are out there now protesting for their rights, protesting for fairness who say this country has not been fair to African American males? To people like my little grandson who has to grow up? Why would you put this kind of stuff in the bill?

“Because you’re taking shots again. You’re taking shots again at African Americans is what you’re doing, but you’re taking it with legislation to disenfranchise. That’s what you’re doing.”

Rep. Raymond Smith Jr. (D-Sampson, Wayne) was one of three Black House Democrats who voted against the measure. He said Wednesday the voter ID provision was the only reason he opposed it.

“My feeling was that by voting in favor of this bill, we were in essence introducing a new voter ID law,” he said. “We just created another window of opportunity.”

He said HB 1169 sends a message to North Carolinians that the Republican Party is insincere in their efforts to have a fair election, and that he believes it’s the GOP intends to ensure it’s not. 

‘An exercise in absurdity’

The fact that Republicans put the voter ID measure in an otherwise good and very necessary bill to secure votes “is one of the oldest tricks in the book,” Smith said. 

“We need to stop politicizing bills that have absolutely everything to do with the health of our people, the health of our state and are good for our citizens,” he added.

Harrison said she is confident voter ID will not be implemented this year. She added that the bill’s provision for public assistance identification does not cure the voter ID bill’s major discriminatory flaws. 

Allison Riggs

Allison Riggs, interim executive director and chief voting rights counsel at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, agreed. She said Wednesday she wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans try to resurrect voter ID, but the courts’ injunctions address the racially discriminatory intent with which the law was passed in December 2018.  

“Just like the Fourth Circuit rejected the late attempt to derail litigation in 2015 with the addition of the reasonable impediment process (the court said that didn’t remedy intentional racial discrimination in 2013), I’d expect the same result here,” she wrote in an email. “It’s also just far too late to implement a voter ID law that’s been enjoined for months, while elections officials plan for conducting an election in a pandemic. 

“If we tried, we’d make what happened yesterday in Georgia look like child’s play. Also, how are you going to use photo ID to confirm a person’s identity if they’re wearing a mask?  So it’s an exercise in absurdity if they try.”

Ultimately, the positive aspects of the bill addressing elections in a pandemic compelled many Democrats to vote in favor of it. Those same aspects made it difficult for voting rights organizations to straddle between supporting part of it while also condemning the voter ID provision. 

“This addition, along with a collection of other unnecessary amendments added by the Senate to spur the specter of so-called ‘voter fraud,’ taints a bill that otherwise includes common sense proposals meant to keep voters safe amid expanding voting access this fall and is more of the same partisan efforts to give one party the upper hand in the 2020 election,” said Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC. “We’re of course not in a position to assess how the courts will address this, but this reads to us as an attempt by leadership at a ‘quick fix’ to North Carolina’s voter ID problem as raised by those courts. 

“The reality is that it fails to provide the comprehensive reforms needed to ameliorate the long-standing harms of this restrictive and racist limit to voting access. As is, it remains no more than a cynical and transparent attempt to tie the politics of voter ID to a bill voters in a pandemic desperately need.”

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, said as much as he doesn’t want to see voter ID back on the books, the other provisions in HB 1169 had to be addressed to ensure the safety of voters. 

“We’ve got time but the clock is ticking,” he said of election preparation. “There are some disturbing lessons in Georgia that we do have to learn from, and that is to make sure that we have an adequate number of poll workers and that we also have everything in place to handle an expected increase in absentee ballots.”

‘We need a comprehensive approach’

Senate Democrats also brought up the Georgia primary fiasco from yesterday, where fewer voting locations and poll workers led to voters waiting in extensively long lines to cast a ballot. 

“Did you see what happened in Georgia yesterday?” Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) asked her colleagues. “In case it wasn’t already clear, we need a comprehensive approach to show North Carolina can run a safe and secure election.”

Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg)

She presented several amendments that Republicans tabled. She also pointed out that it would probably be more difficult than usual in a pandemic for North Carolinians without a photo ID to get one in time for the election. 

Raúl Macías, voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said HB 1169 is good in terms of its election preparation clauses, but said the legislature needed to be doing more.

“The primaries have shown us that there is a huge demand from voters to vote by mail this year,” he said. “The state could help make that easier by sending all voters an application for an absentee ballot that includes a postage paid envelope to return the application. They also should make sure all voters who request an absentee ballot can return it with prepaid postage so that not having a stamp is not a barrier to voting. Voters should also be able to return their ballot without a witness. The requirement to find a witness or notary could put a voter’s health at risk.”

He said lawmakers should also take additional steps to ensure all absentee ballots cast are counted. This includes notifying voters who forget to sign their ballot envelope or  giving voters an opportunity to fix a perceived mismatch between that signature and the signature on file.

With an absentee voting surge across the country, Macías said election officials need to prepare now to ensure they have the infrastructure in place to meet the demand. 

“Counties also need to consider how they can provide voters a safe option for voting in person,” he said. “They need to consider if existing voting locations can accommodate voters while social distancing. To the extent changes need to be made, elections officials need to identify new locations, consult with the public, and conduct a public education campaign to ensure voters understand any changes to the election.”

The long lines voters experienced in Georgia are a major concern. Long waits can disenfranchise voters, and disproportionately affect Black and Latinx voters, according to Macías. The Brennan Center just released a report that found in 2018, Black and Latinx voters had to wait longer to vote than white voters.

The types of concerns he laid out are ones local voting rights advocates and Democrats have been highlighting since HB 1169 was introduced. Attempts to amend the bill from House and Senate Democrats to include other provisions, like prepaid postage for absentee voters and an ability for counties to expand voting locations and hours, have been unsuccessful.

The Senate will convene at 9:30 a.m. to take its final vote on the measure. If it passes, it will go to Gov. Roy Cooper for a signature before becoming law.