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NC lawmakers approve GOP-backed election changes

Friday - 7/26/2013, 12:20am  ET

MICHAEL BIESECKER
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A Republican-backed measure that would make sweeping changes to when and how North Carolinians can vote appears headed for a court fight.

The measure given final approval late Thursday night in a party-line vote in the GOP-dominated state House requires voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls and shortens early voting by a week, from 17 days to 10.

The measure also ends same-day registration, requiring voters to register, update their address or make any other needed changes at least 25 days ahead of the election. A popular high school civics program that registers tens of thousands of students to vote each year in advance of their 18th birthdays will be eliminated.

The bill also ends straight-ticket voting, which has been in place in the state since 1925.

Disclosure requirements intended to make clear who is underwriting campaign ads will be weakened and political parties would be enabled to rake in unlimited corporate donations. The cap on individual campaign donations will rise from $4,000 to $5,000.

Republicans claimed the changes will restore faith in elections and prevent voter fraud, which they claim is endemic and undetected. Nonpartisan voting rights groups, Democrats and Libertarians say the true goal is suppressing voter turnout among the young, the old, the poor and minorities.

The proposed changes now head to the desk of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. His communications director, Kim Genardo, did not respond to messages Thursday night inquiring whether the governor will sign the bill.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the U.S. Justice Department will challenge a new voter ID law in Texas and hinted it may pursue similar legal action against other states, including North Carolina. Several other groups, including the NACCP, also indicated they are likely to mount legal challenges.

The House originally passed the bill with the voter ID requirement in April. Senate leaders waited until the waning days of the legislative session to take up the issue, adding more than 50 additional provisions.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 last month to effectively halt the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, enacted to outlaw racial discrimination against voters. North Carolina was among the states, mostly in the South, that were subjected to special federal enforcement, with requirements to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws.

The high court's ruling cleared the way for North Carolina Republicans to become the first in the nation to enact voting law changes without concern for having to obtain prior federal approval.

"We understand there will be lawsuits," said Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), who is a lawyer. He added, "It's our belief the laws we are passing are consistent with Constitutional requirements and they will be upheld."

Voting statistics in North Carolina show Democrats are more likely to vote early and vote straight ticket, two of the practices targeted by the bill. A state study also estimated more than 300,000 registered voters lack driver's licenses or other forms of state-issued ID, most of them elderly or low-income minorities.

A Democratic amendment to add student ID cards from universities and community colleges was rebuffed. Democrats were successful in adding an amendment to require county boards of elections to either add early voting locations or stay open later on the 10 remaining early-voting days.

During lengthy floor debates in both the state Senate and House, Democrats repeatedly pressed Republicans on why it makes sense to roll back decades of measures intended to increase voter registration and boost turnout.

GOP lawmakers repeatedly denied that the new measures are tied to partisan gain. Despite records showing only a handful of documented cases of in-person voter fraud prosecuted in the state over the last decade out of 30 million ballots cast, Republicans compared the state's elections to the notoriously tainted races in 1960s Chicago.

Democrats predicted the voting changes will lead to long lines and chaos at the polls, as happened after early-voting days were cut in Florida.

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 McCrory in January. But registered Democrats still heavily outnumber Republican voters in the state and the margins of victory in recent elections have sometimes been razor thin.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, suggested Republicans are concerned about facing voters after passing a budget he said hurts public education to enact tax cuts that favor the rich.

"If you all have self-confidence that your agenda is the right agenda for the state of North Carolina, then let's open the doors of the polling place to as many as we can and the people will ratify it," Stein said. "But if what you are doing is limiting who can vote in elections, what you are telling me is that you don't have self-confidence. What you are doing is shameful, un-American, and shows everyone in North Carolina whose side you're on -- and it's not theirs."

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Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck


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