A Virginia House committee today gutted a package of election bills, setting back efforts to encourage registration in a state that trails most of the country in voter participation.
"They left us with basically nothing," said Michael Brown of the Virginia NAACP. "It indicates that Virginia, 20 years after the Voting Rights Act, isn't going to be ready for another 25 years. They haven't seen the light yet."
The House Privileges and Elections Committee, keeping its conservative reputation intact, overturned the recommendation of a subcommittee and state election officials to eliminate language that would allow local registrars to sign up voters from a neighboring jurisdiction.
It also killed a provision that would encourage registrars to draw volunteers from lists submitted by civic groups.
Still alive is a requirement that registrars list their telephone numbers in the local directory and a provision allowing registrars in neighboring counties to sign up voters at a joint sites -- such as George Mason University or Metro stations.
That last provision is duplicated in a bill now before a Senate committee and today, Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) said he has hopes of restoring in the Senate some of what was killed in the House.
The close votes in the House committee killing two key amendments were questioned by some observers who noticed that two committee members were out of their seats when their votes were cast. Unlike the Senate, the House of Delegates does not allow proxy voting in committee.
Del. Robert Ball (D-Richmond) said later he had called out his vote from the back of the committee room.
And both he and Del. Theodore Morrison (D-Newport News), who said he doesn't remember where he was during the roll calls, say their votes were properly recorded, which means a reconsideration would not change the outcome.
The voting-law package was introduced this year to address problems advocates of increased voting said they found this summer during a voter registration drive.
With only 53.7 percent of the voting-age population registered, Virginia now ranks at least third from last in the country in registration rates.
Sue Fitz-Hugh, who was appointed secretary to the state Board of Elections last month by Gov. Charles S. Robb, has said she plans to come to the legislature next year with a complete package of voting-law changes.
Fitz-Hugh today lent her support to the provision allowing cross-jurisdictional registration.
Some committee members argued that it would create "mass confusion."
They also argued that encouraging civic groups to act as volunteer registrars would "end up promoting special interest groups."
"The process is very incremental," noted Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria). "This is the third year we have tried (on cross-registration) and we have gotten further than we ever had before."