A House committee finished the destruction today of a bill designed to make it easier for citizens to register to vote, approving seven pages of language that, according to the bill's sponsor, essentially restates the current law.
In a series of votes this week, the committee and one of its subcommittees turned the once-sweeping proposal into something so innocuous that delegates laughed when Del. C. Jefferson Stafford (R-Pearisburg) cast a dissenting vote. "Too strong for you, huh, Jeff?" joked Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News).
The bill's patron, Del. William Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk), who stood quietly watching the committee vote, pronounced the results not even "half the wrapping . . . of half a loaf." But he said he hadn't expcted a great deal more.
"Virginia changes very slowly. You just keep putting the same bills in year after year and hope the light goes on," he said.
Robinson's bill had the backing of a commission appointed by Gov. Charles S. Robb and 16 other groups. One of those groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, characterized existing registration laws as among the worst in the nation. But the bill failed almost entirely to appeal to the critical Privileges and Elections Committee and one of its subcommittees.
The committee approved a resolution Robinson introduced calling for two amendments to the Virginia Constitution designed to increase the pool of voter registrars and to keep voters' names on the rolls unless they want to be dropped.
But when they got to Robinson's bill, committee members decided half a dozen other statutory changes that it proposed were either too costly, impractical at the current time, or misguided on their face.
They struck a proposal to allow voters to register anywhere in the state by a 10-to-9 vote after opponents claimed registrars were still trying to get used to the legislature's decision last year to allow them to sign up voters in adjoining counties and cities. Unless the full House decides to restore that provision, Robinson said the idea is dead until next year.
They threw out a provision to lift a ban against registrars' soliciting new voters after opponents argued that politically motivated registrars would be selective in who they approached. The ACLU contended the ban was unique to Virginia.
They decided a provision to make registration sites accessible to the handicapped would be too costly, that a provision to give voters 10 more days before election to register wouldn't allow enough time to close the rolls and that a provision requiring registrars to "maintain registration at the highest possible level" was, as one delegate put it, "silly."
Del. Clinton Miller (R-Woodstock) said such a provision technically meant that unless registrars signed up every eligible voter, "they would be derelict in their duties."
Robinson himself withdrew a provision that would have allowed registration by mail because he said it had "no chance at all."
"I can't believe it," said Judy Goldberg, associate director of the local ACLU. "All we have left is evening hours," referring to a provision encouraging registrars to stay open after 5 p.m. and on weekends, if possible.
Both Robinson and Goldberg blame the defeat of so many of the proposals in part upon weak backing from the Robb administration. They complain, for instance, that while Robb has professed support for statewide registration, the state registrar, his appointee, testified that it would difficult to implement.
George Stoddart, Robb's spokesman, said the governor had pushed for three of the changes recommended by a study commission he appointed: evening hours, a constitutional amendment to allow federal, state and local employes to serve as deputy registrars and a second constitutional amendment that would allow voters who hadn't voted in four years to indicate their desire to stay on the rolls by mail instead of in person.
"All three passed," he said.