Forty years ago this month, North Carolina played a pivotal role in expanding voting rights for American citizens. On July 1, 1971, our General Assembly became the final state legislature needed to ratify the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
A few days later, at a signing ceremony for the amendment, President Richard Nixon looked around the room of assembled young people and said, “America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs as we approach our 200th birthday - not just strength and not just wealth but the Spirit of ‘76, a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe … that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in his own life.”
Thousands of miles away, 18-year-old Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam. The cry of “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” had grown louder through the 1960s and Congress finally proposed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in March 1971. It sped through state legislatures, gaining the necessary ratification of three-fourth of the states with our General Assembly’s historic vote.
Later this July, the General Assembly will consider several bills with a far different purpose. They aim to restrict, rather than expand, opportunities for qualified voters.
One proposal would eliminate the first week of Early Voting, even though this feature has helped North Carolina improve its dismal record of voter participation. Our turnout rate among voting-age adults finally reached 55% in 2004, the highest in a century, and then topped 60% in 2008 (it hit 70% of all registered voters that year, with plenty of room for improvement).
More than 2.4 million North Carolinians used Early Voting in 2008, including 706,000 in the first week. It makes no sense to cut back this feature that helps voters and saves the cost of splitting precincts and opening more expensive polling sites each Election Day.
Another proposal would end Same-Day Registration and Voting. Young people are notorious procrastinators; many don’t know the registration deadline is 25 days before Election Day and don’t tune into the election’s drama until the final days.
With Same-Day Registration (SDR), a citizen who misses that deadline can go to an Early Voting site, show proper identification, register, and cast a retrievable ballot, all on the same day. About 250,000 North Carolinians used SDR in 2008, including 100,000 first-time voters (mostly youth) and nearly 150,000 who updated their address or name.
Some critics claim problems with verification of SDR-voters prove it’s flawed, but they’ve used phony numbers to bolster their case. A true analysis shows the return rate of registration cards actually matches the normal turnover in addresses and confirms the multiple benefits of SDR.
Republican leaders will also seek to override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a hard-line bill requiring voters to show a government photo ID each time they vote. Perdue was right to call the bill excessive. Several states with a photo requirement accept IDs from private colleges or an affidavit signed at the poll under penalty of perjury - but not the North Carolina bill.
Despite scant evidence of voter impersonation, Republican leaders want an ID barrier that will disproportionately harm young adults, low-income voters, people of color, seniors who no longer drive, and women who change their names. They’re ready to spend millions to make it happen - literally laying off teachers to enact a procedure that serves their partisan advantage. Even if only 2% of registered voters are harmed, that’s 120,000 people.
North Carolina has a voting system that is nationally recognized for balancing access with security. Any change must be evaluated in how it advances both goals and their proper balance.
Voting is not a privilege like riding an airplane; it’s a fundamental right that is our identity as citizens. In the best of the Spirit of ‘76, let us recognize that we all benefit when every American has an equal chance to participate in the dream.
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan voting rights organization (www.democracy-nc.org).