A photo ID would not have fixed this mistake

By on December 13, 2010

Recent news about a push by the General Assembly’s new Republican majority to require voters to produce photo IDs struck me in several different ways, most of them negative.

First, I didn’t realize people posing as someone else at polling places was a problem. A story by the Charlotte Observer suggests that it’s not.

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The urgency comes across as a little inflated, too. The GOP aims to pass the legislation within the first 100 days of the General Assembly. Potential cutbacks of millions in education funding seem more worrisome and immediate.

The story also brought to mind, at least for me, what it’s like to live in a relatively small county and an even smaller town.

Voting in Nags Head is a fairly intimate undertaking. If you don’t run into an acquaintance in line, there’s a good chance you’ll know one of the poll workers. The last time I voted, my neighbor was checking names on the registration list. My guess is he would feel pretty silly asking me for a photo ID.

One year I was told at my polling place that I had been removed from the roll of eligible voters because I was a convicted felon. You have to believe me, I am not a criminal.

I tried to take the offense in good humor, but I was shuffled off for instructions on how to cast a provisional ballot that might be counted if I was proven innocent. I wondered how long it would take for the news to reach the local rumor mill since in my mind this caused something of a scene at the small precinct.

Using my reporting instincts, I went to the Department of Corrections database and quickly found a Robert Morris the same age who had been incarcerated somewhere west of here.

I won’t get into all of the details of my phone conversations with elections officials. But I will say they included a pointed reference to legal action. Maybe a foul mood was clouding my perception, but I felt as though one state official was treating me like a felon — that without proof, there was no reason to believe otherwise.

On the other hand, the Dare County Board of Elections was gracious and understanding. Things were cleared up by the end of the day, and it was the county that informed me.

I don’t remember hearing a satisfactory explanation of how such a mistake could happen. But it seemed to stem from the same kind of care some collection agencies use when fishing for bad debtors. You know, the ones that expect you to prove you are not the Robert Morris they’re looking for from the 50,000 or so they gathered up in an electronic dragnet.

Maybe the whole thing was just a clerical mistake. But if the state had a photo ID requirement, it would not have made any difference. I had already been taken off the books.

So unless state officials have gotten better at the way they prove the eligibility of real voters, I don’t see any reason why I should be forced to produce a photo ID to prove that I am the real Robert Morris on their list — if by some stroke of luck I happen to still be on it.

This column originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

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