The Republican-dominated North Carolina Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to sweeping election law changes, including requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls and shortening early voting by a week.
The bill was approved in a 32-14 party-line vote following three hours of debate. Among the bill's 57 pages of provisions are measures ending same-day voter registration and a popular high school civics program that encourages students to register in advance of their 18th birthdays.
North Carolina's traditional May presidential primary date would be moved months earlier to immediately follow South Carolina's first-in-the-South vote, typically held in late January. The bill also weakens disclosure requirements for those underwriting campaign ads and allows political parties to rake in unlimited corporate donations.
The bill also eliminates straight-ticket voting, which has been in place in the state since 1925.
Republicans claim the proposed changes will restore faith in elections and prevent voter fraud, which they claim is both rampant and undetected.
Non-partisan voting rights groups, Democrats and Libertarians suggested the true goal is suppressing voter turnout - especially among blacks, the young, the elderly and the poor.
"This system isn't broken," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, the Democratic leader from Buncombe County. "We're not Florida. We haven't had hanging chads. We haven't had problems."
The bill faces a final Senate vote Thursday before heading to the GOP-controlled House, where Speaker Thom Tillis has said it is likely to pass.
Moments after the Senate voted, at least four young people protesting the bill were handcuffed by police and removed from a reception area in the speaker's office.
The state House passed the bill with the voter ID requirement in April, but Senate leaders waited until what is expected to be the last week of the legislative session to take up the measure and add a raft of additional voting restrictions.
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 in local, state and federal elections. 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 enact the voting law changes without having to obtain prior federal approval.
Several groups, including the state chapter of the NAACP, said they would immediately file lawsuits challenging the measures if they become law, as is expected.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans traded verbal barbs and cited voting statistics intended to boost their arguments during a long debate that at times turned testy.
A Democratic analysis of records for the last six statewide elections, in which more than 30 million ballots were cast, shows elections officials confirmed only two cases of in-person voter fraud. State elections statistics also show about 318,000 registered voters don't have a driver's license, many of them older and low-income minorities considered more likely to vote for Democrats.
"This is immoral," said Sen. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth). "It is evil. It is unnecessary. As an African-American and as a woman, I am disgusted to be here today discussing suppressing the vote."
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 GOP Gov. Pat McCrory in January.
But registered Democrats heavily outnumber Republican voters in the state and the margins of victory in recent elections have sometimes been razor thin. In 2008, future President Barack Obama carried the state by little more than 14,000 votes out of more than 4.3 million ballots cast.
Despite the lack of evidence showing widespread voter fraud in the state, Republicans repeatedly insisted that cheating at the polls is rampant and that the perpetrators are not caught.
"If anyone thinks that having to prove who you are is going to disenfranchise anybody ... that's foolishness," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, (R-Randolph). "If you don't check it, you ain't going to detect it."
Tillman and other Republicans denied race or partisan advantage played any role in the proposed changes, which they said were about fairness and restoring integrity to elections. They pointed to the example of Georgia, where voter ID requirements were instituted in 2007 and minority participation in elections grew by more than 40 percent.
Democrats countered that increase could be attributed to other factors, such as Obama's presidential runs. They also cited the example of Florida, where Republicans curtailed early voting only to have to restore it after elections were marred by hours-long waits to vote.
Democrats were not the only ones to object to the bill.
J.J. Summerell, chairman of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina, issued a statement Wednesday criticizing what he said was a partisan attack on a fundamental American right.
"Republicans claim to be the party of limited government," Summerell said. "Now we see what that term really means: When Republicans say limited government, they apparently mean government limited to them and their supporters."