RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina legislative Republicans on Thursday advanced their goal of permanently requiring voters to show photo identification — a proposal previously thwarted by veto and federal judges who declared a similar mandate racially discriminatory.
Legislation to allow the state's voters to decide whether to place a photo identification directive in their state's constitution cleared a General Assembly committee on party lines.
By taking the route of enshrining it in the state constitution, Republicans believe the idea would get permanent legal backing while putting an topic popular with their base on the November ballots in what's expected to be a challenging political campaign for them. The bill's next stop is the House floor in the final days of this year's legislative session.
While more than 30 states require some form of identification to vote, only Mississippi and Missouri have constitutional provisions addressing photo ID. Arkansas will have a similar proposed constitutional amendment on ballots this fall.
"Election integrity must be one of our top priorities as legislators," House Speaker Tim Moore said while pitching the amendment to House committee members prior to their 21-9 vote. "This constitutional amendment for voter ID achieves that."
The proposed amendment would have to get support from 72 House members and 30 senators next week for it to get on this November's ballot. Republican members in both chambers exceed those thresholds.
A simple majority of voter support then would be needed in the referendum to change the constitution, but details of how the mandate would be carried out still would have to be implemented in a separate state law. Those details could be approved by the end of the year, especially if Republicans lose their veto-proof majorities in November and seek changes before the next session in January.
North Carolina required photo ID briefly for the 2016 primary elections based on a 2013 elections law, which also reduced the number of early-voting days and eliminated same-day registration during early voting. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck those restrictions down in July 2016, finding they targeted "African Americans with almost surgical precision," citing legislative documents.
Voting rights advocates contend black voters, who historically are more likely to lack a qualifying ID card, would be harmed disproportionately by any future requirement, too.
"This bill has one motivation: eliminate and chill the votes of certain voters," said the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP chapter.
The number of actual confirmed cases of voter fraud — what Republicans say photo identification is designed to address — remains extremely low. An audit of the November 2016 elections by the state election board found 24 substantiated cases of people illegally voting multiple times among 4.8 million ballots cast. And instances of voter impersonation potentially occurred in only one case, said Kim Strach, the elections board's executive director.
The amendment "does nothing to improve the state of our voting machines. This does nothing to improve security of our voting system," Tomas Lopez, executive director of advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, told the committee.
Republicans and their allies offered anecdotal incidents in local precincts where poll observers have seen fraud or double-voting occur.
"Voter impersonation fraud is easy to commit, but yet very difficult to prove and prosecute," said Jerry Reinoehl of Fayetteville, who said he's been a formal poll observer. State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said polls over the years have shown strong bipartisan support for voter ID.
"Many, many people in the public question why they don't present an ID and if their vote can be disallowed or somebody else can vote in their place," Woodhouse said.
In 2011, then-Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed a voter ID law, but GOP lawmakers didn't have enough votes to override it. A proposed constitutional amendment, like the one debated Thursday, isn't subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto stamp.
The 2013 law contained several exceptions for voters who lacked identification to cast a ballot, and the proposed amendment says the law to implement the mandate could so the same. Committee Democrats complained the amendment was so vague that voters didn't know what the end product would be.
GOP Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, an amendment sponsor, said legislators would work hard to ensure the bill implementing the amendment would comply with voting rights laws: "No one's going to be denied the chance to vote."