New Virginia voter ID legislation expected to face less opposition from DOJ than others

March 15, 2012

Just days before the Obama administration blocked a Texas voter ID law, Virginia’s General Assembly approved a pair of voter ID bills of its own.

GOP legislatures nationwide have been adopting stricter identification standards since the 2000 presidential election, saying they are needed to combat voter fraud.

Virginia jumped on the bandwagon just as the Justice Department decided to crack down on the trend. The department contends that the Texas law, and a South Carolina measure it blocked in December, would disproportionately harm minority voters.

But some observers say Virginia’s legislation is less likely to draw Justice objections than the Texas and South Carolina legislation, which required voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls.

Although Virginia’s measure requires some form of ID, it would expand the types of acceptable voter identification to include such things as utility bills and bank statements.

“I do believe the Virginia law is much more narrowly tailored,” said state Sen. Tom Garrett (R), a Louisa County prosecutor who successfully tried two people for voter fraud in 2009. “You won’t find the words ‘photo ID’ in our law.”

State Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield), who sponsored the voter ID bill, said the Justice Department actions are unlikely to come Virginia’s way.

“There’s a huge difference . . . because we do not require a photo ID,” he said.

Even some critics of Virginia’s legislation — which is among the most hotly contested of this year’s session — aren’t counting on the Justice Department to stop it.

“It’s not as severe as the other two laws, in South Carolina and Texas,” said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who nonetheless thinks the Virginia measure is intended to “hold down minority votes.”

For decades, Virginia has required voters to provide a voter registration card, Social Security card, driver’s license, government-issued identification or photo ID from a private workplace. About 10 years ago, the state changed the law to allow people without an ID to vote as long as they signed a sworn statement attesting to their identity.

Under House and Senate bills passed this year, anyone without identification could cast only a provisional ballot. It would not be counted unless the voter provided identification — in person or via fax or e-mail — before election results were certified six days later. At the same time, the bills would expand the list of acceptable forms of identification to include a college ID, current utility bill, bank statement, or government check or paycheck bearing the voter’s name and address. The list goes beyond what was called for in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg).

“Our types of ID were expressly modeled after that,” he said. “They absolutely will not have the impact of suppressing the vote.”

The bills passed by the narrowest of margins, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) breaking the partisan 20-20 vote. They still need the signature of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who has not taken a public position on the legislation. Spokesman Tucker Martin said that McDonnell is reviewing the measures.

Virginia is one of 16 states that have a history of discrimination and must receive federal approval before changing voting laws. The states must prove to the federal government that the new statutes would not discriminate against minorities. If McDonnell signs the legislation, the Justice Department will have 60 days to review it. Xochitl Hinojosa, an agency spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the burden of proof will be on Virginia to show that “the elimination of the affidavit option is fully offset by the [ID] expansion.”

Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at New York’s Hunter College, said Virginia’s legislation “has the most chance of succeeding against any DOJ objections. It put the least burden on voters and is the most flexible, because a voter can bring anything from a photo ID to a paycheck stub.”

The Virginia State Board of Elections does not record how many people vote after signing “affirmation of identity” forms, but officials in some counties said the number is low. In Loudoun County, 127 out of the 51,727 who voted in person in November did so. In Chesterfield County in November, the number was 118 out of 48,000.

Republicans said the voter ID bills were needed to ensure the integrity of elections. In an era in which people present identification to enter office buildings and board planes, they said Virginia’s voter ID requirements are ridiculously loose — “just short of a pinkie swear and a note from Mom,” as Garrett put it during a heated floor debate.

Democrats contended that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud and that the measures are part of an effort by Republicans nationwide to suppress the votes of minorities, the elderly, college students and the poor, who they said are less likely to have identification — and more likely to vote for Democrats.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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