Don’t let Virginia ID law discourage voting

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 13, 2012

Here’s my nightmare scenario for the November election: President Obama wins the popular vote, but Mitt Romney triumphs in the electoral college amid massive controversies over whether new, Republican-backed voting laws helped him win in decisive swing states.

That combination of events would stir outrage and raise questions about the election’s legitimacy that would dwarf the uproar surrounding the 2000 Florida recount that put George W. Bush in the White House. Democrats would feel robbed — albeit by legal means — for the second time in four elections.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Worse, some of the resentment would have racial overtones. Many African Americans (and others) would conclude that voting chicanery reminiscent of the Jim Crow era had suppressed Democratic turnout and victimized the nation’s first black president.

Our region can help prevent such a horror by guaranteeing a clean election at home, especially in Virginia. That’s the only jurisdiction in the area that’s realistically up for grabs in the presidential race, and it’s one with a new voter-identification law passed by Republicans in Richmond over passionate Democratic opposition.

Fortunately, the revised voting requirements in Virginia aren’t nearly as onerous as in some other states, such as Pennsylvania. Even a current utility bill, showing one’s name and address, is among the documents that will satisfy polling officials. A state voter card, a driver’s license, a concealed-handgun permit or several other kinds of identification will also suffice.

“It’s going to be next to impossible for any voter to say they don’t have any form of ID that’s going to be acceptable,” said Charlie Judd, chairman of the State Board of Elections.

Even without ID, you can cast a provisional ballot. It will count, as long as you provide authorities with a valid document by noon of the Friday after the election.

Still, the Virginia law tightens the rules in one key respect. In previous elections, if you lacked ID, you could vote by signing a statement swearing that you were the person you claimed to be. This was nicknamed the “Popeye affidavit,” pledging, “I am what I am.”

Given the stakes, it’s imperative that Virginia election officials, politicians and civic activists do their utmost to educate the public about the new law and ensure that it doesn’t thwart democracy.

The risk of disenfranchisement is greatest among the poor, elderly and minorities, because those groups are most likely to lack any of the valid forms of identification. Not coincidentally, all are predominantly Democratic constituencies.

I’ve found that it’s hard for a lot of middle- and upper-class people to fathom the idea that anybody today lacks formal ID, but it’s true. Many poor people never had a driver’s license, and some older people have given up driving. You can’t use a utility bill if your electricity or telephone service is in a spouse’s name, or if you’re homeless and sleeping on a relative’s couch.

“This law is going to hurt the community that lives at or below poverty level, because they don’t have all of the resources and may not have all of the papers,” said the Rev. Keary Kincannon, pastor of Rising Hope Mission Church, which operates a soup kitchen and food bank in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County.

Kincannon plans to place leaflets describing the law in bags of groceries distributed to the needy on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He also will put up a notice in the church and preach about how to protect one’s right to vote.

“Part of the difficulty is that many in our community are transient, yet they’re citizens. They ought to be able to vote,” he said.

Supporters of the law said it was necessary to prevent vote fraud, but I think that’s baloney. There has been very little, if any, vote fraud in Virginia of the sort that the law would prevent.

Instead, the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed the law, and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) signed it, as part of a nationwide movement among Republicans to add restrictions to voting in the hope of getting an edge at the polls. In Pennsylvania, the Republican House majority leader predicted in June that the state’s new voter-ID law would deliver the state for the GOP for the first time in a presidential race since 1988.

Virginia Democrats plan mass mailings to alert voters about the law. They’re recruiting lawyers and volunteers to staff polling places on Election Day to help anybody whose right to vote is questioned.

So far, Democrats say they’re satisfied that the State Board of Elections is handling the issue fairly. The board plans to mail new voter-ID cards before November to all 4.7 million registered voters. It says it will work with 140 civic organizations of all political hues to spread the word about the rule changes.

But beware: Because the governor is a Republican, the GOP holds two of the three seats on election boards at the state and local levels.

We shouldn’t assume they’ll exploit the new rules for partisan purposes. But we should watch them. Closely.

I discuss local issues at 8:50 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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