Virginia General Assembly set to keep fighting about election laws

January 13, 2013

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell got his only standing ovation in last week’s State of the Commonwealth speech with an unexpected announcement: He would support automatically restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons who had paid their debts to society.

But the Republican governor didn’t bring all audience members to their feet.

“Most of the people standing were Democrats,” said Del. Rosalyn R. Dance (D-Petersburg).

A year after Republicans and Democrats fought bitterly over voter identification bills, Richmond seems ready to keep sparring over who casts a ballot and how.

Dozens of bills on the subject have been filed for the 45-day General Assembly session that began last week, with Republican-sponsored measures generally aimed at tightening voting procedures and Democratic-backed ones largely intent on liberalizing them.

Legislation backed by the GOP intends to purge the voting rolls of felons, keep non-citizens out of the voting booth and make it a felony to solicit someone to vote illegally.

Other measures would:

●Require voters to present government-issued photo identification before casting ballots.

●Make groups that conduct voter-registration drives undergo training and take an oath to abide by registration laws.

●Authorize election workers to tap into Department of Motor Vehicle photos at the polls to make sure the voters are who they claim to be.

From Democrats come measures that would create early voting, extend poll hours and automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences.

Both sides revive the debate with arguments provided by the last election season: Republicans recall an undercover video showing a Virginia congressman’s son discussing how voter fraud could be pulled off; Democrats invoke the hours-long waits at the polls in November.

Legislators are not for or against those measures strictly along partisan lines.

Some Republicans have joined McDonnell, who has restored voting rights to more felons than any of his predecessors, in support of ex-felon voting rights. And some are in favor of “no excuses” absentee voting. Currently, Virginians are allowed to vote absentee only for limited reasons, including military service and jury duty.

But broadly speaking, the parties still seem deeply divided over whether voting rules are too loose or too restrictive.

On Monday, a Republican-controlled House panel killed bills aimed at restoring voter rights to nonviolent felons. But the issue is not dead because similar measures are pending in the Senate. Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville) is among those who thinks felons should still have to apply to the governor to get their voting rights restored.

“I think you have some felons who have turned their lives around and should be eligible to vote, and others who are not sorry at all and have every intention to commit crimes again, and that’s not someone I think should be voting,” Bell said.

Dance said the current restoration process is complicated and intimidating, despite strides McDonnell had made to streamline it. She and Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) have called on McDonnell to name his voting-rights restoration bill for former senator Yvonne B. Miller, a Norfolk Democrat who died last year after championing the cause for 20 years.

Battles over voting broke out during last year’s General Assembly session as Virginia joined a fight that had been underway in statehouses across the country since the 2000 presidential election. GOP legislatures nationwide have pushed for stricter identification standards since then, saying they are needed to combat voter fraud.

For years, Virginia had required voters to provide identification. But there was a loophole: Voters who came to the polls without it were allowed to cast a ballot if they signed an affidavit swearing to their identity.

Republicans contended last year that the loophole compromised the integrity of elections. Democrats countered that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud and accused the GOP of trying to hold down minority turnout.

Out of the session came a law that was something of a compromise: It requires voters to present identification but also expands the types of acceptable ID to include such things as a bank statement or utility bill. Those without identification can cast a provisional ballot, but it is not counted unless they later show ID.

Like any compromise, the law left some unsatisfied.

Some Republicans have bills to scrap the forms of identification added last year. Others want to move to an even stricter standard, requiring a government-issued photo ID. Patrick Moran, the son of Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), inadvertently inspired some of those measures. He resigned from his father’s campaign in October after he was caught on video discussing how to impersonate voters with forged utility bills or bank statements.

“The Moran tape, the conversation on how to cheat, that prompted me to see if we could go ahead and remove those [ID] items,” said Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg). “Stuff like utility bills and bank statements or paychecks, anybody could type one up that looked real.”

Democrats have drawn inspiration for their bills from another source: long waits at the polls on Election Day. They say the voting process has to be made easier by allowing early voting or no-excuses absentee voting, and by having polls close at 8 p.m. rather than 7 p.m.

“I don’t know why we’re afraid to look at a system that probably is archaic, set up probably 30 or 40 years ago, why we’re afraid to look at it now and try to make it better,” said Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke). “Our country will only be as great as the participation of people who vote.”

Despite the flurry of voting bills, some legislators have a limited appetite for them, at least in a session with a transportation funding overhaul and other big issues. They include Sen. Thomas A. Garrett (R-Louisa), one of the staunchest advocates for stricter voter ID last session.

Garrett, who as a prosecutor won two voter-fraud convictions after the 2008 election, has a bill to increase penalties for soliciting voter fraud. But he is not especially eager to revisit the types of ID that should be required at the polls.

“This is maybe going to sound strange coming from me: I think we’re in a pretty good spot right now,” Garrett said. “ . . . There’s so much more important stuff that’s going to come in front of this General Assembly session.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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