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Why the state GOP's voter ID bill is a costly and unnecessary misstep

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Republicans introduced a voter ID bill last week in the state House of Representatives, with Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte as a primary sponsor. The bill requires poll workers to ask voters for a photo ID. Those without a photo ID would have to cast a provisional ballot and sign an affidavit affirming their identity, under threat of a felony arrest for giving false information. The bill shifts the issuance of voter photo IDs to local boards of election (rather than work within the DMV's current photo ID program); takes money from funds meant to assist disabled voters, and is so under-funded, it is likely to both fail to adequately educate voters on the new voting requirements and shift most of the expense of providing new voter IDs to the various counties. Opponents of the bill, however, say the primary problem is that the bill is designed to solve a problem — widespread voter fraud — that, considering available documented facts, is nearly nonexistent.

It is an article of faith among Republicans nationwide that voter fraud is a rampant problem. Hard evidence for their belief, in terms of follow-up investigations that found actual voter fraud, shows a minuscule problem at worst. Rep. Killian, however, is totally convinced. Killian recently told an Observer reporter, "I have heard many, many stories about voter fraud," echoing similar reports of rumored voter fraud from other GOP House members.

Here is how common and widespread voter fraud has become in Charlotte-Mecklenburg: In the 2008 election, more than 400,000 votes were cast in Mecklenburg County — the most in its history; County Board of Elections Public Information Manager Kristin Mavromatis said that out of those 400,000-plus votes, a whopping eight instances of possible voter fraud were reported and investigated.

"Of those eight instances, all but one were mistakes due to poll worker error, not fraud on the voters' part," explained Mavromatis. "And the one that could have been construed as voter fraud was a 95-year-old lady who, it seems, was taken to early voting by a relative, and then taken to vote again on Election Day by someone else. And those eight were a lot; we normally have one or two instances per election."

We asked, "So what about claims of widespread voter fraud in Mecklenburg County?" Mavromatis replied, "It's just not happening."

Statewide, the numbers are much the same. Investigations by the N.C. Board of Elections found that from 2004 and 2010, a mere five votes per million cast involved fraud that would have been preventable by a voter ID.

Voter ID supporters have said they don't believe those figures, preferring to trust in cold, hard hearsay. Opponents claim that the bill isn't really about fraud, so much as it's about keeping some traditionally Democratic constituencies (the poor, students, the elderly, people of color, the disabled) from voting.

Doug Wilson, a vice chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, said, "The voter ID bill, if it becomes law, is going to affect a lot of people in low-income areas, particularly African-Americans, as well as people in nursing homes and students, and those are voting blocs that traditionally vote in high numbers for Democratic candidates. We feel it's a way to suppress the Democratic vote and, specifically, to keep the president from winning the state again in 2012."

Rep. Killian says the law is necessary. "People want to know that the vote they're casting is credited against their name and that no one else can vote on their behalf," he said. "In 2008, there was a significant spike in reports to the Board of Elections [sent] out to district attorneys' offices to investigate."

Most of those investigations, however, found the allegations to be without merit, and State Elections Director Gary Bartlett says there were a mere 18 cases of double-voting in 2008 out of 4.2 million votes cast.

Ineffective and discriminatory

An extensive report by the Institute for Southern Studies estimated that an effective voter ID program — one which would provide free IDs for those without them and would be publicized extensively to voters around the state — would cost N.C. taxpayers $20 million or more over three years. That kind of expense would have been tough for the GOP to justify in a year when teachers are being laid off for lack of funds. So in order to forego the necessary costs to implement voter ID, they essentially under-funded the whole thing.

It is unclear how many N.C. citizens lack a photo ID. The State Board of Elections says it could be as many as 1 million people. Democracy North Carolina estimates the number at around 400,000. In order to vote, those 400,000-1 million citizens would need to get new IDs. Rather than go through the DMV's in-place photo ID program, however, the voter ID bill sets up a whole new system in which county boards of election will be given photo ID machines, forms, supplies and training to produce needed voter ID cards (which will not be valid as an official ID anywhere but at polling places). On top of the cost of the cards, N.C. would need to spend more to update forms and websites; accommodate longer lines at polling places; and hire and train staff to detect fake IDs and handle provisional ballots. In 2009, Missouri, which has 2 million fewer voters than N.C., estimated a cost of $3.4 million for the cards.

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