Va. Democrats blast GOP colleagues over voting proposals

February 20, 2013

A bill that would require Virginia voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot is headed to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell after passing along partisan lines Wednesday in the House of Delegates.

The Senate proposal passed the House by a vote of 65 to 34. While Republicans maintained that the measure was needed to protect the integrity of the elections process, Democrats said the bill amounted to a “poll tax” that would impose an undue burden on citizens.

“We break the trust of those who fought ... for many years to ensure that their children and their grandchildren could [exercise] their right to vote,” said Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who spoke of her great-grandfather’s struggle to register to vote during segregation. “Any bill that places any barrier on someone exercising their right to vote is an anathema ... to people who fought and died to exercise that right.”

After the vote, Democrats called on McDonnell to veto the legislation.

“Today, House Republicans delivered a major setback to Virginia’s democracy and made it harder for Virginians to vote,” said Del. Charniele Herring (D-Fairfax), who also serves as chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “Governor McDonnell should veto this extreme anti-voting bill and work to make sure that the Commonwealth’s elections remain open and accessible to all qualified voters.”

Under Senate Bill 1256, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), the state elections board would provide free voter registration cards with a voter’s photo and signature if they do not have a valid photo ID.

The bill would take effect July 1, 2014, if the proposals outlined in the bill are funded in the current year budget. The fiscal impact of the bill is estimated at more then $166,000 for the first year to purchase equipment and about $200,000 for the following two years, much of which would pay for voter education leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The bill is pending in the House and could come up for a vote Wednesday.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin did not comment specifically on Wednesday’s action, but said McDonnell will “carefully review any legislation passed by the General Assembly on this issue.”

“Following last year’s changes in our voter identification laws to further protect the integrity of the electoral process, Virginians turned out in high numbers to vote in the presidential election,” Martin said in a statement. “It was a successful test of our system. The system worked as designed to prevent voter fraud, and to ensure that registered voters were able to cast their ballots and trust that their vote would be counted. The governor believes Virginia’s current system generally has proven successful.”

General Assembly Democrats have criticized their GOP colleagues for blocking attempts to expand absentee voting, early voting and restoration of felon rights.

The House also approved Senate Bill 1077, which would give the State Board of Elections access to immigration and citizenship status information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine voter eligibility. The bill would also require the Department of Motor Vehicles to relay the alien registration number of non-citizens applying for a license, permit or identification card to the elections board each month.

The bill, also sponsored by Obenshain, passed the Senate on Feb. 5 by a 23 to 17 vote. The House passed the proposal Wednesday by a vote of 70 to 30, but the amended bill must return to the Senate for final approval.

Opponents of the bill say it will disproportionately affect naturalized citizens who have already earned their right to vote.

The bill “targets people like me and says that we have to now again prove that we are worthy of the full rights and responsibilities of a U.S. citizen,” said Virginia New Majority spokeswoman Tram Ngyuen, whose family emigrated to the U.S. as refugees from the Vietnam War. “I personally find that very offensive. It does create a second class of naturalized citizens, who have to go through extra steps to secure our right to vote.”

Obenshain said the bill attempts to purge non-citizens from the voting rolls, in the same way that dead people, those who have moved to other states or convicted felons who have not had their rights restored are removed.

“This is simply a continuation of our efforts as we have more and better information to make sure our voter lists are clean,” he said.

In November, high turnout led to voters in some Virginia precincts waiting hours to cast ballots, raising questions about the efficiency of the election system in the commonwealth. But several measures proposed during this year’s legislative session aimed at addressing those concerns failed to pass.

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