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A Push for Photo IDs at the Polls Could Leave Voters Behind

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - Last Election Day, chances are you didn’t think much about how you got to the polls. You walked, drove, rode with a friend or on a bus. The fact that you didn’t agonize over how you would get to your polling place is a good thing.

In order to ensure equal access to voting, North Carolina makes polling places available in most every neighborhood, provides assistance to disabled voters and permits absentee balloting and early voting. We put polling places near where people live because it would be undemocratic -- and frankly un-American -- to make driving a car a pre-condition to participating in democracy.

N.C. lawmakers may push for photo ID requirements to vote

At the state legislature there has been much discussion surrounding a proposal to require voters to show photo identification before they vote. Supporters of requiring a photo ID at the polls are concerned that it is too easy to impersonate a voter on Election Day.

Undoubtedly we need to make certain that our votes are secure. That’s why voter fraud is a felony. And that’s why when registering to vote, citizens must provide a social security or driver’s license number, or barring that, a bank statement, utility bill, or other authorized document showing their name and address.

For the majority of us, we probably wouldn’t think much about an additional requirement to show a state-issued photo ID when voting. Most adults already have a driver’s license, so carrying it to the polls wouldn’t seem to be a big deal.

But our democracy isn’t about “most of us.” Democracy only works if participation is open to all of us.

According to a recent report from the State Board of Elections, at least 700,000 registered North Carolina voters don’t have a driver’s license or state-issued photo ID card. Unlike driving a car, which is a privilege that must be earned, being able to govern ourselves through voting is a bedrock principle of our society.

Adding a photo ID requirement could be done, but in order to do it right, we would need to make sure that everyone who is entitled to vote has easy access to a photo ID card. And since most people who don’t have a photo ID are people who don’t drive, we would need to make sure that getting a voter ID didn’t involve yet another trip downtown.

We might do a pretty good job of opening up polling places close to people’s home, and newer rules that allow early voting and absentee ballots for everyone certainly help. But try as we might to make voting accessible, we still make it difficult for some. A well-intentioned proposal to increase voter security could inadvertently leave some voters out of the process.

Before we require a photo ID to vote, let’s look to make sure it is necessary. While no system is foolproof, there have been very few instances of in-person voter fraud in recent years. And if someone thinks requiring a photo ID keeps people from doing things they aren’t supposed to, they should ask any 19-year-old college kid how they get into dance clubs and cocktail lounges.

We might be able to increase security without risking that some voters are left out, but doing so is going to require us to think creatively about how our voting system works, not simply adding another burden to voters. For most of us, we don’t have to think about the trips we take to do things like vote. But in a healthy democracy, “most of us” isn’t enough.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.