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July 26, 2013

Sweeping changes in election laws

TARBORO — A bill that will require voters to present a photo ID received negative reviews from Edgecombe County Democrats while Republicans are supportive.

North Carolina's Republican-dominated Senate gave preliminary approval to the bill Wednesday that will allow sweeping election law changes, including requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls, shortening early voting by a week and eliminates straight-ticket voting.

"This is reversing a suppression right that we gained a long time ago," said the Rev. Richard Joyner, a registered Democrat. "There should not be a roadblock for people to have to cross to vote. The right to vote is an opportunity that should not be challenged."

James Proctor, Edgecombe County Republican Party chairman, said as long as provisions are made to assure that underprivileged voters are given opportunities to to get proper identification, "I don't have a problem with it." He strongly supports eliminating straight-ticket voting.

"If you don't know everybody who is on the ballot, how do you know who to vote for?" Proctor asked. "I strongly approve that. I think that's a very good move."

According to a document from Edgecombe County Board of Elections, during last November's General Election, 27,039 out of 39,833 citizens voted. Of the ballots cast 20,679 voted straight party (16,410 Democrats, 4,200 Republicans and 69 Libertarians).

That election had one of the highest voter turnouts in recent years. Perhaps one of the reasons of the large turnout was the 17,708 early votes, which was also one of the highest early vote totals in recent years. With the proposed shortening of early voting by one week, Democrats fear those number could go down, but Republicans disagree.

"The majority of the voters vote during the last week," Proctor said. "Cutting it back to one week will not hurt anything. They're doing it to save money."

Republicans claim the proposed changes will help restore faith in elections and prevent voter fraud, which they claim is both rampant and undetected.

Non-partisan voting rights groups, Democrats and Libertarians suggested the true goal is suppressing voter turnout — especially among blacks, the young, the elderly and the poor.

"If this bill passes, we must show them that our freedom cannot be suppressed," Joyner said. "We must get out and vote despite the obstacles that they are throwing against us."

The bill was approved in a 32-14 party-line vote following three hours of debate. Among the bill’s 57 pages of provisions are measures ending same-day voter registration and a popular high school civics program that encourages students to register in advance of their 18th birthday.

Another change will be the state's traditional May presidential primary date would be moved months earlier to immediately follow South Carolina’s first-in-the-South vote, typically held in late January. The bill also weakens disclosure requirements for those underwriting campaign ads and allows political parties to rake in unlimited corporate donations.

Republicans took control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented full control of state government with the inauguration of Gov. Pat McCrory in January.

But registered Democrats heavily outnumber Republican voters in the state and the margins of victory in recent elections have sometimes been razor thin. In 2008, future President Barack Obama carried the state by little more than 14,000 votes out of more than 4.3 million ballots cast.

Despite the lack of evidence showing widespread voter fraud in the state, Republican legislators repeatedly insisted that cheating at the polls is rampant and that the perpetrators are not caught.

“If anyone thinks that having to prove who you are is going to disenfranchise anybody ... that’s foolishness,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, (R-Randolph). “If you don’t check it, you ain’t going to detect it.”

Tillman and other Republicans denied race or partisan advantage played any role in the proposed changes, which they said were about fairness and restoring integrity to elections. They pointed to the example of Georgia, where voter ID requirements were instituted in 2007 and minority participation in elections grew by more than 40 percent.

Democrats countered that increase could be attributed to other factors, such as Obama’s presidential runs. They also cited the example of Florida, where Republicans curtailed early voting only to have to restore it after elections were marred by hours-long waits to vote.

Chad Hinton (R) Edgecombe County Board of Election chairman, did not weigh in with a political view. He said, "Our board will continue to enforce the law as prescribed by statute. These changes are new to us all, and we will strive to educate ourselves and our staff to ensure the fairest possible implementation."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

 

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