The General Assembly is considering a bill to require voters to present photo identification in order to be allowed to vote. Proponents of the bill say the ID requirement is necessary to protect the integrity of elections and stamp out voter fraud. Opponents claim that there is no significant evidence of in-person voter fraud and that the bill is simply an attempt to make it harder to vote for persons without ID who tend to be older, poorer and more minority than those with ID.
Putting aside the public policy debates, the voter ID bill has one significant problem: It violates the N.C. Constitution, which deliberately puts the issue of voter qualifications beyond the reach of the General Assembly. To understand how and why requires some knowledge of the history of North Carolina, including the crucial role of voting rights in North Carolina.
The current state constitution is the product of a post-Civil War Convention called in 1868 to rewrite the fundamental form of our government in light of what its Preamble calls “the preservation of the American Union” after four years of bloody conflict. Not surprisingly, elections and the extent of the voting franchise were critical elements of the new Constitution.
Indeed, the post-war General Assembly that called the Constitutional Convention required all delegates to take an oath not to require – or even propose – any educational or property qualification for voting.
Our Constitution’s very first Article is a “Declaration of Rights,” which, among other things, requires frequent and free elections and states categorically that “as political rights and privileges are not dependent upon or modified by property, no property qualification shall affect the right to vote or hold office.”
In addition to those general Declarations, our constitution has another Article, Article VI, devoted entirely to “Suffrage and Eligibility to Office.” That Article starts off by stating that every person born in the United States or who has been naturalized “and possessing the qualifications set out” in the Article “shall be entitled to vote at any election by the people of the State.”
The “qualifications” set out in the Article are minimal, requiring only a residency period, registration, and that the person not be a felon (unless restored to the rights of citizenship). No other qualifications are found in the Constitution.
The structure of the Constitution defines all the qualifications to vote and, therefore, puts additional qualifications outside the ambit of the General Assembly. Underscoring this interpretation is the fact that the Constitution explicitly allows the General Assembly to “enact general laws governing the registration of voters,” and there are pages of such laws in the North Carolina General Statutes. Voter qualifications, though, are off limits and, until voter ID recently popped up as an issue, the General Assembly had not sought to intrude into that arena.