LUMBERTON — The question of how a voter ID might affect Robeson County elections depends on who is answering it.
Republicans say hardly at all, while Democrats say it will suppress the vote. A top law enforcement official believes it might slow hauling, and reduce fraud.
The question might get answered in elections that follow the Nov. 6 general election as polls suggest voters will decide in favor of a voter ID in North Carolina, but do so blindly as the referendum provides few details. If that happens, North Carolina will become the 32nd state with some form of voter ID.
Proponents say it will curb fraud.
“Voter fraud has been alive and well in our county for years and seems to flourish each time we have an election,” said Erich Hackney, an investigator for the Robeson County District Attorney’s office. “Of all the investigators I have talked with over the years about voter fraud in their counties, none seem to top the uniquely fraudulent methods and tactics used in Robeson County to unduly influence our elections.”
Hackney thinks requiring someone to flash a photo ID before that person can vote might be a deterrent.
“I would imagine that those who have the intention to cast a fraudulent vote when hauled to the polls would think twice before doing so if a voter ID requirement were in place,” Hackney said.
Hackney was part of an investigation by the state Board of Elections looking into voting irregularities following the 2013 municipal races. The state investigation focused on alleged vote buying in the Pembroke mayoral race. Investigators also sought to determine whether voters provided fraudulent addresses when they voted.
The state board required new elections, citing sufficient election irregularities.
Steve Stone, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections, doesn’t see a voter ID as a stop sign. In 2014, citizens were required to present photo identification.
“Most people showed up with an ID in hand,” Stone said. “There was very little grumbling.”
In 2013, then Gov. Pat McCrory signed a photo identification into law. The Supreme Court struck down the law in 2017, arguing it unfairly targeted minority voters.
“I can’t think of a single person I know that doesn’t have a photo ID,” Stone said. “You have to have an ID to buy a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack. You have to have an ID at Walmart.”
Stone says getting a photo ID is very simple. Residents can easily obtain a copy of their birth certificate at the Robeson County Courthouse. They can then present their birth certificate to workers at the state Division of Motor Vehicles to obtain a free photo ID card. The Board of Elections will also provide a photo ID if requested, he said.
Larry Townsend, a Democratic member of the four-person Robeson County Board of Elections, contends efforts to return a voter ID law to the state constitution are a distraction from more important issues.
“This is a red herring,” Townsend said. “The fraud they talk about has never been presented.”
The State Board of Elections issued a report following investigations of voting irregularities in the 2016 general election. Nearly 4.8 million voters participated in the 2016 election, the largest number in state history, according to the report compiled by the state agency. The report cites 24 cases of double-voting, two cases of voter impersonation, 41 instances of voting by non-citizens, zero cases of ballot stuffing or tampering with equipment, and 441 cases of voting by suspected felons.
The report says: “Evidence suggests that participation by ineligible voters is neither rampant nor non-existent in North Carolina. Our audits suggest that in the 2016 general election, approximately 0.01 percent of ballots were cast by ineligible voters. Most incidents are isolated and uncoordinated … ineligible voters are not isolated to one political party or any geographical region of the state.”
Voter fraud is no bigger a problem in Robeson County than in any other county, according to Joshua Malcolm, a former member of the local elections board who now is vice chairman of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
“Election professionals have to remind the public how safe and secure voting processes are,” Malcolm said. “Folks need to know those in charge of elections are doing everything they can to ensure the integrity of the election process and the integrity of the ballot box.”
Tiffany Peguise-Powers, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections, questions the amount of time and money devoted to limiting the right to vote to those individuals without an ID.
“Voter fraud is so minuscule compared to the money the General Assembly has spent to impede people who would like to vote,” she said.
If voters say yes to a voter ID, Peguise-Powers says it will suppress votes in her party.
“Yes, if this law passes, it will hinder more poor people who cannot afford ID. It also impedes those who have transportation barriers and cannot afford to pay someone to take them to get a birth certificate and then to get an ID,’ she said.
Ed Henderson, chairman of the county’s Democratic Party and mayor of Red Springs, asked, “If it’s not broke, then why fix it?”
He then itemized some of what he says are barriers to getting an ID: transportation, time and cost.
Townsend sees voting as a First Amendment issue, and believes people are losing confidence in the election process.
But Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, believes voter ID will restore confidence. He is also confident it will pass “because the majority of Americans have demanded it here … .We will join the majority of states who already have voter ID in place.”
He says there is bipartisan support for voter ID, and rejects the idea that securing one is difficult.
“When nearly everything we do requires an ID, it is both stunning and disingenuous to imply some people are unable to attain an ID,” Stephens said. “If there are some unfortunate folks who do not have an ID then we need to assist them. You literally can’t do anything without an ID these days.”
In order to register to vote, an individual must be 18 by the next general election, be a U.S. citizen, and a resident of the county in which they wish to vote. Individuals may complete an application to vote at the local Department of Motor Vehicles office when they apply for a driver’s license. The county Board of Elections will provide a photo ID free to individuals when they register to vote.
Hackney, a former Lumberton councilman, agrees.
“Presenting an ID verifying who you are only strengthens the integrity of the voting process, which if you think about it, is the absolute foundation to our democracy,” he said.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found more than 300,000 voters lacked a photo ID in North Carolina.
They are disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities. They frequently have difficulty obtaining ID because they cannot afford or cannot obtain the underlying documents that are a prerequisite to obtaining an acceptable photo identification, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. They are also less likely to drive and often lack a driver’s license.
In Robeson County, the “hauling” of voters is a money-maker on election days. The practice is legal as long as the ride is not on the condition of a vote for a certain candidate. Critics say it is an invitation for abuse.
Stone does believe a voter ID would mean fewer hauled voters, which would mean less money for the paid haulers.
Robeson County is famous for essentially coining the term hauling, Stephens said.
“A Washington attorney was with our team in 2016 when we investigated a complaint of voters voting in Scotland then being hauled over to Robeson to vote again. Many counties receive these complaints. Robeson is sometimes ground zero for these unfortunate practices,” Stephens said.
According to Stone, an investigation of potential voter fraud is now underway. The local board recently contacted the state Board of Elections with a complaint involving an elderly couple who were told they must register to vote prior to voting in the November election.
There are certain voters who must present identification to vote. First-time voters who at the time of their initial voter registration did not provide a valid North Carolina license or the last four digits of the Social Security number must present an I.D., but not necessarily a photo identification.