Virginia's attorney general yesterday urgently appealed this week's court order barring Fairfax, Arlington and eight other jurisdictions from requiring voters to show identification before they cast ballots Nov. 2.
The 16-page brief, filed by the office of Republican Attorney General Mark L. Earley on behalf of the state Board of Elections, asks Virginia's Supreme Court for an "expedited review" of an order by the Court of Appeals in Richmond. The order blocks the state from going ahead with a voter ID pilot project that would require about 1.1 million voters in 10 localities to show identification at the polls.
Unless the injunction is dismissed by Oct. 25, Earley's petition said, it will be too late to go ahead with the pilot project, which the brief noted already has been cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The law creating the pilot project, aimed at preventing vote fraud, narrowly passed the General Assembly in February. The Democratic Party of Virginia filed suit against the state Board of Elections and other defendants this month to block the program, saying that it "places an unconstitutional burden" on some voters by imposing special requirements only on them. Judge Melvin R. Hughes Jr. accepted the Democrats' arguments and issued the injunction Tuesday.
Republicans yesterday expressed confidence that they would prevail in the Supreme Court. But the injunction has forced Virginia's Elections Board to delay sending out new identification cards to voters in the 10 localities along with a letter explaining the pilot project's requirements.
"Those cards can still be mailed and reach the voters before Election Day if the preliminary injunction is dissolved before Monday evening, October 25, 1999," the petition said. "After that point, it will be too late for the project to go forward even if the Commonwealth ultimately prevails."
"We're on hold until we know the result of our appeal," said Hugh Key, the Election Board's deputy secretary. Although the Democrats did not specifically seek to prevent the mailing of the cards, Key said the board did not want to risk being held in contempt of court by sending them.
Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax), the chief sponsor of the voter ID law, said she thought the injunction is "unfortunate, but I'm not counting on this being the final word."
Elections officials in Fairfax County said that aside from the issue of mailing out the cards and accompanying letter, there were no impediments to the project. Under a 1996 law, election officers who run polling places in the county already ask thousands of voters to show identification, notably those who have registered by mail or those who are voting for the first time.
"This is no big deal for the election officers," said Robert Beers, the general registrar for Fairfax. "It's just a question of whether they ask some people or everyone" to show identification. "When they open the polls at 6 a.m., the officers simply need to know whether we ask or don't ask."
Democrats have welcomed the injunction, contending that the new voter ID requirement would slow the voting process and discourage people from participating.
However, Beers said the Fairfax elections board, a bipartisan body, unanimously supported joining the pilot project in large part because it is convinced that showing identification cards will speed the process. Many election officials find it difficult to understand names that are given to them orally, especially by newly naturalized Americans who may speak little English or have a heavy accent, Beers said. He noted that the Vietnamese surname Nguyen (pronounced Nwin) is now the most common name on the county's voter rolls, with about 2,500 voters sharing that last name.
"As an officer at the polls, there was nothing I appreciated more than when someone voluntarily offered a driver's license or a card so I could see their name rather than having to hear it," Beers said. He said many voters produce identification so they won't have to spell their names out loud for election officials.
Among them is Devolites, who said she routinely shows a driver's license when voting. "Quite frankly, I think it expedites the process to show an ID," she said.
CAPTION: Attorney General Mark L. Earley requested an "expedited review" of the ban.