By Johanna Field, MSW Candidate and NASW-NC Intern
The requirement of showing photo identification when voting has become a major point of contention, not only in our state, but across the nation. Last legislative session, North Carolina passed a bill requiring all voters to show photo identification in order to vote. Governor Bev Purdue, however, vetoed it before it became law and legislators were not able to reverse this veto. This is still an important issue as it may return in the 2013 legislative session. It is an issue that divides us along party lines with amazingly few exceptions. The passion from both sides is palpable (and understandable), but perhaps we can set aside the mud-slinging for now and look at this issue through a bi-partisan lens.
While voter integrity and involvement are important and valid issues, there is little concrete evidence of fraud in the current system. This issue is likened to speeding, however, in that a tiny fraction of those who engage in this illegal activity are actually caught. Requiring photo ID is just a piece of the puzzle, as it only stops one form of potential fraud and there are contradictory arguments as to how easy impersonating someone at the polls really is. On the other hand, this law would keep over 460,000 North Carolinians from being able to vote (and those are just the ones who are already registered and have been active in exercising this right in the past) (source: Democracy NC). This data shows that the law would disproportionately affect minorities and those aged 65 and older.
The Brennan Center for Justice (part of the New York University School of Law) conducted a nationwide study to analyze the impact of photo voter identification laws. They found that access was a serious problem. Most poorer communities are more than 10 miles from a facility that issues photo identification and most of these residents also do not have access to transportation (especially in rural areas where public transits do not run). Many of the facilities that do exist do not have evening or weekend hours, so residents would have to take time off of work (usually without compensation) in order to go. To obtain photo identification, a person needs to be able to verify their identity, which usually means a passport, birth certificate, or marriage license (if your name changed as a result). Many older adults do not have copies of this paperwork, the fees for even a first copy can be high, and the wait is extensive (unless you are able to order it online and can afford to pay an additional expedition fee). Not only this, but it will cost us millions of dollars to implement the voter id law, if it comes back up next year and is passed (The Brennan Center’s study).
This issue should concern all of us, regardless of party lines. Unfortunately, voter fraud does exist , but it is impossible to know to what extent. Not addressing the issue of voter fraud means risking corrupt officials being elected into office, and manipulation at the level of election will likely mean similar behavior while in office, or to keep that office. Depending on the laws, even a small number of fraudulent votes can decide an election. However, we cannot ignore the negative impact that these laws have on our fellow Americans and North Carolinians. In an environment where citizens are already losing faith in elected officials and the election system, few people will have the time, money, or energy to deal with this additional hassle of obtaining an id and will simply choose not to vote. Steps need to be made to ensure adequate access to identification and supportive documents (see Rhode Island’s example) before we can put voter id bills into law. People are losing their faith in the government and our election system, partly evident in the steady decline in the numbers of young voters prior to the 2008 presidential election. Our country was founded on the principles of fair and equal representation, so it is vital to both ensure the integrity of the system and to protect the right of every eligible citizen to vote for the candidate they feel would best represent them.