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Ellie Kinnaird: Voting law changes hurt democracy

April 22, 2014 

Election season is upon us. Candidates have filed for office and soon our mailboxes will be filled with brochures telling us why we should vote for a candidate and our TVs will be spewing forth scary stuff.

But what most voters may not know, is that election laws were drastically changed by the legislature last year in a bill called the Voter Identification Verification Act. Only five pages of the bill dealt with photo ID, while 44 pages repealed the expansive election laws that had improved voter turnout in North Carolina.

The first change took effect September 2013. It repealed the ability of 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so that when they reached voting age, they were ready to just walk in and vote. High school civics classes used pre-registration as a way to introduce young people to citizenship. What a loss. And why would that opportunity be taken away?

This year, four major changes that affect every voter went into effect.

Early voting was shortened by one week. Early voting was the most popular method of voting with 70 percent of African Americans and 52 percent of whites using early voting in 2012.

The disparate impact on African-American voters is part of a lawsuit against the state. Statistical charts showing the dramatic negative effect on black voters were displayed in the floor debate. One has to ask, since those statistics were known, did the bill's authors intentionally cut down African-American votes since they vote heavily Democratic? But, it has the effect of inconveniencing all voters. A compromise kept the same number of early voting hours as 201. Later early voting open hours helps working folks. But a provision allows counties to bypass this requirement, and as of now, 43 counties have been granted a waiver.

Same-day registration and voting was repealed. This was especially helpful for college students who are busy with exams and papers and aren’t paying attention to register to vote 25 days before the election. When they could vote and register at the same time, student voting increased. Now the number of students voting will decrease, and one has to ask is this obstacle because the student vote is heavily Democratic? People new in town will also be inconvenienced.

Straight-party ticket voting is no longer an option. Before, one could put an X by their party choice and vote for all the candidates of that party (other than president). But now, each office has to be marked separately. This will result in long lines at the polls. Some legislators said that everyone should be informed about every candidate. But I can assure you that most voters don't even know what the Council of State is. Those offices – such as the Treasurer, Auditor, Insurance Commissioner, etc. – don’t advertise heavily like the major offices, so voter information is scarce.

An especially draconian change is that ballots cast in the wrong precinct will not be counted. In the past, a person could cast a provisional ballot if they accidentally went to the wrong precinct. Their ballot would be counted when their registration was confirmed.. Now, the ballot will be thrown into the waste basket. (Of course, in early voting the person’s precinct does not matter; but early voting hours are reduced.)

Then there is the icing on the cake: photo ID will be required in 2016 and the list of acceptable IDs is very short: only an unexpired N.C. driver's license or special ID from the DMV; a U.S. military or veteran ID; unexpired passport; or enrollment card from a government-recognized Native American tribe. No federal ID, no university ID. But here is a wrinkle: if a person has one of the above on their 70th birthday, it is good for voting for life. (Maybe they didn’t want the AARP down on them or maybe it is because of the party preference of most older people. You decide.) Also, an out-of-state license is acceptable if the person registered to vote within 90 days of the election – how many people are going to do that math?

The legislature also very disappointingly (hard to say which is most disappointing) repealed public financing for the Council of State and appellate court judges. Fourteen judges on the N.C. Court of Appeals wrote the legislature asking them to keep public financing. They know special interest money campaign contributions to elect judges taints the appearance of justice.

To put the whole issue in context, the U.S. Supreme Court years ago decided that states could fashion their own election laws. Interestingly, even though the bill was written months earlier, it didn't go on the floor until the Supreme Court released North Carolina from part of the Voting Rights Act that required the Justice Department to review changes to voting laws. Which is why North Carolina can now change them so drastically.

There are four lawsuits challenging the new law, one state and three federal. Working against success is the make-up of the N.C. Supreme Court and the years it will take to work their way through the courts. So here we are, the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

Ellie Kinnaird is a former state senator and mayor of Carrboro. You can reach her at ekinnaird2@gmail.com

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