Commentary

Brent Laurenz: Election bill rewrite undermines democracy

August 13, 2013 

Brent Laurenz

In the waning hours of this year’s legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly approved a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election procedures. The bill, which enacts massive changes to the way North Carolinians vote, was ratified with little to no public involvement as it was unveiled just two days before its ultimate passage.

House Bill 589, the vehicle used to enact these new restrictions on voting, passed the House in April as a 17-page voter ID bill, only to reemerge months later, and three days before lawmakers adjourned for the year, as a 57-page rewrite of North Carolina’s election law. In crafting the original H589 earlier this year, the House engaged in a transparent, deliberative process that sought opinions and viewpoints from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, such a thoughtful process was not applied the second time around as lawmakers rushed to pass the bill before adjourning for the year.

The most prominent new restriction is a requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls in order to vote, beginning in 2016. This provision has garnered the most attention and was the original focus of H589 when it was passed by the House in April. Besides the 40 pages dealing with election law that it tacked onto the bill, the Senate also made significant changes to the photo ID requirement. Most notably, public university and community college IDs, as well as government employee ID cards, will no longer be valid forms of identification for voting.

Aside from the voter ID requirement, other restrictions in the bill deal directly with voter access to the polls and limiting voter registration. Under this proposal, one of the most successful election reforms in recent history is seriously curtailed. H589 shortens the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days. In 2012, more than 2.5 million voters cast their ballots during early voting. That equals the majority of 2012 voters, or around 56 percent of all votes cast. Early voting is widely popular and helps voters exercise their right to vote, which is why it is so disappointing that the General Assembly chose to cut it by a week.

Another setback for voter participation in the bill is the elimination of same-day registration. Currently, same-day registration allows citizens to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period, but H589 completely eliminates it.

In addition to eliminating same-day registration, the proposal also ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina. This unique program dovetails with civics education in the classroom and allows teenagers the ability to pre-register to vote, automatically adding them to the voter rolls when they turn 18. In a time where apathy among younger voters is staggeringly high, it makes little sense for politicians in Raleigh to hamper the ability to get our youth engaged and excited about civic participation at a young age.

Among a host of other measures tucked into the bill’s 60 different sections, it also kills judicial public financing, weakens disclosure laws, reduces transparency in political spending and even eliminates the "Citizens Awareness Month" used to promote voter registration.

Taken together, this bill not only drastically rewrites North Carolina’s election laws, but it also imposes new barriers to civic participation that threaten to leave eligible voters out of the process. Our leaders in Raleigh should be doing all they can to foster civic engagement and improve voter turnout, but unfortunately this shortsighted legislation goes a long way toward doing just the opposite.

Brent Laurenz is 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.

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