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.”
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.