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Virginia lawmakers split bitterly over voter ID rules

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RICHMOND — How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? That’s the sort of question that Del. Algie T. Howell (D-Norfolk) says Virginia poll workers threw at his father in the days of Jim Crow.

“They would ask you questions for which there really was no answer,” Howell said. “Regardless as to what you say, it’s the wrong answer. There was no way for you to pass the literacy test.”

Today, a very different question gets popped at Virginia polls: “Can I see some ID?”

Howell puts that seemingly innocuous, modern-day query in the same league as the overtly racist old one. He and other Democrats spent this week warning that a Republican-led push for stricter voter identification rules — in Virginia’s General Assembly and around the country — is a thinly veiled effort to suppress the minority vote.

Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere have advocated “voter integrity” bills that would impose stricter ID standards on voters. No fewer than 17 of them have been proposed in Richmond this General Assembly session.

At a rally on Capitol Square last week, former NAACP director Benjamin Chavis accused Republicans of trying to “lynch democracy.” Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones (D) said the GOP push was all because “there’s a brother in the White House.”

“The people who cast the votes don’t decide elections; the people who count the votes do,” Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) — who said his Jewish grandmother was made to pay poll taxes in Virginia — declared on the House floor shortly before members approved a bill to ban the media and some others from observing the counting of provisional ballots. “You know who said that? Joseph Stalin.”

Republican lawmakers contend that the measures are needed to combat voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the voting system. They note that Virginia’s notorious discrimination at the polls was perpetrated in an era when Democrats had a monopoly on political power. They also point out that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has pushed to extend voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.

Some of the bills are aimed at ending a provision that allows people to vote without identification as long as they sign an affidavit swearing that they are who they claim to be. One of the main bills Democrats object to ends that provision but expands the forms of identification acceptable at the polls to include such things as current utility bills and paychecks.

“I broaden the kind of ID,” said Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield). “These puzzling arguments that they’ve been bringing in front of me — I will tell you that one lady came into committee and actually said . . . that we’re targeting blacks because they’re more likely to forget [their identification]. I didn’t even respond.

“I’m not going to run around being defensive about it and try to prove to somebody that I’m not a racist. I’m simply going to make good law. And it makes good law to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.”

National issue

Voter identification has become a bitterly contentious issue across the country in recent years, even as researchers question whether voter impersonation is a widespread problem. Voter ID laws were passed in eight states last year. The Justice Department blocked South Carolina’s new voter ID law in December, arguing that it was discriminatory because minority voters are nearly 20 percent more likely to lack state-issued photo ID. South Carolina, like Virginia, is one of a number of states required to seek federal “pre-clearance” on voting changes under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“It’s a hot political issue, I think, because it’s good for both parties to be fighting about it,” said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. “It’s good on the right to think that people are trying to steal elections, and it’s good on the left to think people are trying to suppress the vote. Those are passionate stories to tell your base.”

Whatever their intention, the host of voting bills filed this year in Richmond did not arrive there by coincidence. Martin’s bill was the first of thousands of bills filed for the session, earning it the designation Senate Bill 1. Its closest counterpart in the House is House Bill 9.

The flurry includes bills that would require government-issued photo identification to vote; require proof of citizenship when registering; and post a list of penalties for voter fraud — in at least two languages — at polling places.

A bill that passed in the Senate on Thursday would require a five-day waiting period before a newly registered voter can receive an absentee ballot. Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) mocked the idea because of Republican opposition to waiting periods for gun purchases. The bill’s patron, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), countered that he’d gladly trade the waiting period for an instant federal check on voters. It passed 21 to 20, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) casting a tiebreaking vote.

Democratic opposition

Democrats have focused their opposition on two bills, SB1 and HB9, which are less stringent than some of those proposed but are closest to becoming law. Both are aimed at ending the provision that allows voters who do not bring identification to the polling place to cast regular ballots.

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. But about 10 years ago, Virginia changed the law to allow people who arrive at the polls without identification to vote as long as they sign a sworn statement that they are who they claim.

Both HB9, which passed the House on Wednesday, and SB1, which cleared a preliminary floor vote in the Senate on Friday and is expected to pass in a final vote Monday, would still allow the voter to cast a ballot after signing the statement. But it would be a provisional ballot.

Under the House bill, sponsored by Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), the provisional ballot would be counted as long as no one challenged its legitimacy.

Under Martin’s SB1, the provisional ballot would not be counted unless the voter returns with identification.

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