Institute challenges NC lawmakers on cost of voter ID bill

Voter ID.jpgYesterday, the North Carolina House Elections Committee listened to over two hours of public comment on a bill introduced by the Republican leadership that, among other election changes, would require voters to present a photo ID at the polls.

The Institute was encouraged to comment on the bill given our research and reporting on the cost of a voter ID bill. Cost turned out to be a big focus of the hearing, with many of those speaking against the bill questioning whether voter ID should be a budget priority and Democrats asking for further information on the cost estimates.

The bill only allocates $600,000 for the voter ID portion, and that only covers one cost associated with voter ID bills -- the cost of voter education -- and even that allocation is much lower than that estimated by other states. Republicans said a full fiscal note would not be available until next week.

Following are the full text of my comments to the committee, which I was able to deliver even though (as Barry Smith verifies) I was humorously interrupted several times by the sound of bells calling the senate into session (committee chair Rep. Lewis kindly extended my time):

March 15, 2011

Good afternoon. I'm Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a non-profit research group based in Durham that has studied issues of elections and voting rights for 40 years.

I'm speaking today to voice my deep concerns about the voter ID bill proposed for North Carolina. I'm concerned that there's no credible evidence that voter impersonation fraud -- the only type of fraud a voter ID bill could possibly address -- is a real problem. I'm concerned that the bill would likely disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters who don't have photo ID cards.

But one of my strongest objections is that this bill creates a costly new government bureaucracy that we simply cannot afford, deepening our state's budget crisis and robbing needed money from far more important problems facing our state.

Last month, the Institute released an in-depth report on what a voter ID bill would cost the state of North Carolina. The report didn't just pull numbers out of a hat, like some estimates appear to do; it actually analyzed the fiscal notes prepared for similar bills in Maryland, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and other states.

The Institute's report has since been used in testimony for voter ID bills in South Carolina, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states.

Our analysis found that, using a conservative estimate, a voter ID bill would cost North Carolina taxpayers at least $18 million and up to $25 million over the next three years.

The experience of other states makes it clear: Voter ID laws are expensive, especially if you want to run them well and avoid big headaches and bigger costs in the long-run. There are three reasons why voter ID bills are, by necessity, very expensive:

1) Voter Education: State officials across the country agree that when you make a big change in election law like this, you have to inform voters or you will end up with mass confusion and big problems on Election Day. You must pay for TV ads, radio ads, newspaper ads, mailings to old and new voters.

The state of Missouri estimated that to do this job right it would cost $16.9 million over three years, and they only have 4 million voters. An effective voter education program in North Carolina, with 6.1 million voters, could easily cost $14 million or more.

2) Providing ID Cards: The courts have said that if you require ID but don't make it freely available, that amounts to a poll tax. But providing free IDs is expensive. Between 2007 and 2010, Indiana has spent $10 million to provide free ID cards, and they only have 4.3 million voters. Wisconsin estimated it would cost them $2.4 million a year; Missouri put it at $3.4 million.

3) Implementation: The last cost is the one that is most frequently overlooked, but one of the most important: The costs of implementing the bill at the local level. As other states have discovered, these costs are huge:

* Hiring more precinct judges to evaluate IDs
* Hiring and training more poll staff to handle confused voters and additional provisional ballots
* Printing more provisional ballots
* Updating forms and processes

In many states, these costs have been shoved off onto counties and local elections officials. That's basically an unfunded mandate, and at a time when counties are laying off teachers and cutting budgets to the bone, that's not going to go over well with local officials.

Just to be clear: Cutting corners on a voter ID bill is not an option. Trying to go cheap only creates more headaches and costs in the long run. I was shocked to hear that some have called for North Carolina to use "the Georgia model."

As one election expert recently said, Georgia has the "Ford Pinto of voter ID bills: it's too cheap, it's poorly run, and it's a magnet for expensive lawsuits." Surely we have a higher standard for North Carolina?

And even the conservative fiscal note prepared for Georgia's low-rent bill shows it will cost that state's taxpayers over $2 million in 2011 alone, and that's leaving out over 17 major implementation expenses that are being shuffled off to local election officials.

This is a very difficult time for North Carolina. Everyone is being asked to make sacrifices as budgets are slashed and programs gutted to try and make ends meet.

Given our current crisis, it would seem the last thing responsible North Carolina lawmakers would want to vote for a costly new bill that is unnecessary and could cause great harm to the state. Thank you.