Virginia Democrats won a court order today barring Fairfax and Arlington counties, along with eight other jurisdictions, from requiring voters to present identification when they go to the polls Nov. 2.
The Gilmore administration promptly announced that it will appeal the injunction issued by Circuit Court Judge Melvin R. Hughes Jr. against the state Board of Elections, which approved the pilot program.
Lila Young, a press aide to Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), said officials were confident that the pilot program could still be conducted as scheduled if their appeal succeeds.
"We do want to beat the clock," Young said tonight.
In a three-page decision, Hughes wrote that the public interest "in ensuring the voting process is fair and impartial outweighs the interests of this experimental pilot program going forward."
Hughes said he agreed with the state Democratic Party's contention that the program was fatally flawed because residents voting in the same district--but one that may include portions of different counties--could be subject to varying identification rules.
"Given the importance of the right to vote, the complainants' claims raise the spectre of having different eligibility standards for some voters in Virginia and, moreover, for some voters voting in the same legislative district in different precincts for the same candidate," Hughes said.
Democrats were exultant.
"It's the right thing to do," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), chairman of the state Democratic Party. "We have in Northern Virginia confusion already about district lines, polling places, what time to vote.
"To stand in a long wait in line and then be told to go home and get ID, that's not fair," Plum said.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly voted largely on party lines for a Republican-backed measure that started the pilot program in Fairfax and Arlington in Northern Virginia and in eight other jurisdictions statewide, totaling about 1 million registered voters. About 60 percent of the affected voters live in Fairfax County.
The voters would have to produce some form of printed identification, such as a Social Security card or photo ID. Voters without identification could sign a form, subject to felony penalties for making false statements, asserting that they were registered to vote.
Several of the pilot sites are expected to have closely contested elections that could decide the balance of power in the legislature.
GOP legislators said that requiring voter identification would help curb election fraud; Democrats complained that such a program could suppress turnout, particularly among African Americans in a state with a history of Jim Crow laws.
"When you cash a check, you have to show ID," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who has long been a proponent of voter identification.
"What's wrong with it?" Marshall said. "The franchise is more important than simple, filthy lucre."
Gilmore said in a statement tonight that the legislature approved the pilot program "to ensure elections are fair and honest and to prevent any voter fraud."
"President Clinton's Department of Justice approved this requirement as legal and fair for all voters and not racially discriminatory," Gilmore said. "Thirty-nine other states have similar requirements."
Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria), who co-chairs the House Committee on Privileges and Elections, said, "There has never been any indication of a lot of fraudulent voting in Virginia."
Van Landingham said problems that identified by a study that showed ineligible people, including convicted felons, on the voting rolls already had been addressed by legislation to improve coordination among state agencies.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.