Haywood County precinct Chief Judge Debbie Stamey interacts with David Cairnes as he presents a photo ID at the Canton Public Library to vote in the 2016 primary election. Voter ID is not required to vote in North Carolina. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, opened discussion about the the Republican-backed Senate Bill 724, the Expand Access to Voter ID & Voting Act, in the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee in early June with a note about partisanship. 

“Senate Bill 724 is all about expanding voter access in North Carolina,” Newton said. “It does not in any way seek or advance any partisan advantage.”

But Democrats unanimously opposed the bill, which was one of three election bills that passed the Senate on party-line votes and are under consideration in the House. 

The bill has three parts. The first two parts codify what is already happening in the state and would not make any changes to election administration, per the N.C. State Board of Elections. 

But the third part of the bill would allocate $5 million for the NCSBE to identify people who do not have photo identification and run a mobile unit to go to people to help them get identification. 

This is where partisanship comes into play.  

In the hearing, Newton said the bill’s intent was to get photo IDs for people, which are important for several aspects of civic life. He denied that the bill had anything to do with the ongoing litigation over the state’s voter ID constitutional amendment. State courts blocked the law to implement the provision.

“This is an opportunity to remove a barrier not only, potentially someday in North Carolina, to vote but also to remove a barrier just to open a bank account,” Newton said. “So, I think it’d be helpful if these photo IDs could be used more broadly.” 

A state trial court granted a preliminary injunction to block the most recent legislation attempting to implement voter ID, and the state Court of Appeals heard the appeal about the block in April.

Both the state case, Holmes v. Moore, and a related federal case, NC NAACP v. Raymond, are still pending full trials. 

A year ago, Republicans introduced another voter ID provision into a bipartisan election bill that helped prepare the state for running an election during the pandemic. The bill passed with broad support, though like now, the voter ID provision was unenforceable because of the injunction.

Part one of SB 724, which was requested by the NCSBE to codify the process for blind voters to cast absentee-by-mail ballots, is already required by federal courts. Part two codifies online voter registration, which is already happening. Unlike the bill from last year, this one provides little in the way of incentives for Democratic support. 

Even with the provision for blind voters, Disability Rights North Carolina, the federally designated organization that protects and advances the rights of people with disabilities in North Carolina, opposes the bill.

“If lawmakers believe that legislative changes are necessary to increase election transparency and integrity, DRNC urges them to consider ways to do so without limiting constitutional voting rights,” according to a statement from the group that addressed several pending partisan election bills.  

Questions about identification

In the Senate Elections Committee, Democratic Sens. Ben Clark, Don Davis and Wiley Nickel each expressed agreement about the importance of IDs and asked Newton for specifics on the provision. They asked what kinds of photo IDs would be provided, what the IDs could be used for, how the program would be funded and how it would reach North Carolinians who do not currently have IDs. 

The answers largely remained up in the air. This week, the proposed $5 million price tag was revealed in the Senate’s proposed biannual state budget, though there is a long legislative process remaining before it will be presented to Gov. Roy Cooper, who could elect to sign it into law or veto. 

The NCSBE would be responsible for implementing the program, and spokesperson Pat Gannon said that, though the agency does not yet have a plan, it has the capacity to create one. 

Other than the voter ID money, the proposed budget would cut the NCSBE staff by one-third, including a majority of the agency’s information technology personnel, according to Gannon.

Per Newton, some of the details in SB724 were intentionally left vague. 

“We didn’t want to overprescribe that detail to the board of elections,” Newton said. “You’ve got a board of elections that I think has every incentive to get a free photo mobile photo ID to every voter who wants one, prospective voter who wants one.” 

Senate legislative staff said two types of free ID are currently available, a voter ID that could only be used at the polls and a “special operator’s license” that could be used as a state ID for everything but driving. 

Pro-democracy groups, like the nonpartisan, nonprofit Democracy NC, oppose the bill. 

Caroline Fry, Democracy NC’s interim advocacy director, said the bill is a Trojan horse for a voter ID program that the state does not need and that is likely to confuse potential voters.

“It’s very hard to have a voter ID program and be promoting that in communities, because people see that, and they say, “Oh, I need voter ID to be able to vote this year,’” Fry said. 

“Well, we don’t have a voter ID provision. So, I perceive this causing massive amounts of confusion among voters about what they need in order to vote.” 

If the voter ID law were being enforced, Fry said, organizations like Democracy NC would be in a different position. But they are waiting to see what the court has to say before making recommendations about voter ID, and Fry said the legislature can wait, too.

Neither senators from the Democratic nor Republican parties responded to questions for this story.

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.

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