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Wednesday, 25 September 2013 14:13

State voting changes dissected, debated at political forum

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Changes to the voting laws in North Carolina will have only a small effect on voter turnout, according to a Western Carolina University political analyst.

 

The most controversial change — requiring voter identification — would reduce voting by somewhere between 0.4 percent and 2.5 percent, said Chris Cooper, head of the WCU Department of Political Science and Public Affairs. Voters not only have to have a valid photo ID, but the address on the photo ID must be an exact match to the address they are registered to vote at.

Cooper also said the changes won’t change the demographics of voters, despite concerns that the changes negatively affect mostly minorities who typically vote Democrat.

“There is little evidence that this suppresses the voting of minorities substantially,” Cooper said.

Cooper was one of three panelists who spoke at a Constitution Day event last week that focused on changes to the state’s voting laws. The room was filled to the brim with listeners, a mixture of students wanting extra credit, community members and political leaders. Every chair was full in 200-seat lecture room in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center, with people standing and sitting on the floors.

The other panelists included Zeb Smathers, a Canton attorney and member of the liberal Democracy North Carolina board of directors, and Kory Swanson, executive vice president of the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. Each commented on the most publicized part of the new law, the voter identification requirement.

The two sides can be boiled down to two terms: voter suppression or voter integrity, depending on your viewpoint, Swanson said. Those in favor of photo IDs for voters believe it will keep illegitimate voters away, hence integrity.

“There is a war of words, a war of concepts going on,” Swanson said.

However, the crime that requiring voter ID is supposed to solve — voter fraud — isn’t actually a problem as some politicians allude, according to various academic studies.

“I have never seen any national study from the left or the right that shows much evidence of fraud,” Cooper said.

This leads opponents of voter photo IDs to claim it suppresses votes and is biased toward minorities who are less likely to have the most popular form of identification, a driver’s license.

North Carolina only has a handful or two of voter fraud cases during an election, a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 6 million registered voters in the state.

“I own a Jeep, and I could fit half the people found to have committed voter fraud in my Jeep,” Smathers said. “We have a saying, at least in Haywood County, ‘You have to know when you are digging with a bulldozer or digging with a shovel.’ That is a shovel problem, folks.”

Still, requiring voter ID is popular, according to Cooper’s digging. Depending on the study and the wording of the questions, anywhere between 69 percent and 82 percent of Americans favor voter ID laws. In N.C., the number was 66 percent, Cooper said.

One of the more prevalent rumors about the new voting laws is that early voting is truncated. However, that is not a whole truth.

While there will in fact be fewer days to vote early during an election, early voting sites will remain open longer. The number of early voting hours will remain the same, even though the number of days will decrease.

“This is where you get the Democrats saying they are shortened, and Republicans are saying they are lengthened, and they are both right,” Cooper said.

Swanson argued that with the new laws, N.C. is simply coming into alignment with the voting laws of many other states. For example, he said, Ohio was the only other state to allow same day registration.

“Rather than being more restrictive than other states, our election laws are now much more in-line with what other states do — states, by the way, that have successful elections with many citizens exercising their Constitutional right,” Swanson said.

Later, Smathers countered Swanson’s argument, asking if the majority was best.

“What if somebody said, ‘Western, you know [Appalachian State] is doing this?’” Smathers said. “What happened to the thinking ‘We should be better than everyone else?’”

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