The Senate today approved a measure that would require Virginians to present identification before they vote, after the first strikingly partisan debate of the Republican-controlled General Assembly session.
The measure was approved in a party-line vote of 21 to 17, with two senators absent. The House, which shifted to GOP control in this session, also is expected to approve the measure. Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) supports voter identification.
Republicans argue that the legislation is necessary to prevent fraud, while Democrats contend that it would lower turnout.
A pilot voter identification program was struck down last year by a Circuit Court judge who sided with Democrats in their argument that the measure was unfair because it did not apply to the entire state.
The new statewide legislation would require voters to show photo identification or sign a sworn statement verifying their name. Currently, voters in Virginia are required only to tell election workers their names. In Maryland and the District, voters are not required to present identification.
"There is nothing more important that we can do than ensure that we have a system of voting in a democratic process that is characterized by integrity, and that's what this legislation is all about," said Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover). "This bill is not an effort to suppress anyone's right to vote. It's not an effort to make it more difficult for anyone to vote."
Democrats, however, repeatedly evoked images of Jim Crow laws and other now-outlawed restrictions on voting targeted at African Americans. They said that there was no evidence of fraud and that requesting voter identification could discourage blacks and others from voting.
"Were there examples, were there a problem, I'm certain we would all look seriously at changing the system," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "What we will have if we pass this is a chilling effect on people who should be voting, people who remember back to the bad old days of Virginia, and people who have recently come to our county and become citizens from areas where showing your ID is a very threatening, frightening thing."
In October, Democrats won a court order barring Fairfax and Arlington counties, along with eight other jurisdictions, from requiring voters to present identification in the Nov. 2 election.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge Melvin R. Hughes Jr. agreed with the state Democratic Party that the pilot program was flawed because residents voting in the same district--but one that might include portions of different counties--could be subject to varying identification rules.
Under the legislation approved today by the Senate, voters would have to present a voter registration card, Social Security card or other identification with a name and address or name and signature or name and photograph. Otherwise, voters could sign a form, asserting that they were registered to vote. They would be subject to felony penalties if found to have made false statements.
King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia conference of the NAACP, said the measure was a possible "impediment" to voting. He said it would benefit Republicans because that party's voters are more likely to turn out at the polls. "Their people will be mobilized and organized and have their IDs ready," Khalfani said. "They've created the milieu for their people to benefit."
Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) said the measure would not keep one group from the polls any more than another. He said the requirement was akin to asking people for identification at airports or when they write checks.
"All this trumped-up stuff about the blacks--impeding their right to vote--it's not going to impede their rights more than anybody else's," Barry said.
Republicans also hope to pass a law that would allow Virginians to register by party. The GOP will hold a presidential primary on Feb. 29 under the state's current system, which does not allow voters to enroll by party. The state's next general election is Nov. 7, when the presidency and U.S. Senate and House seats will be on the ballot.
Also today, House Republicans proposed several election law changes, including requirements that candidates file their campaign finance reports electronically instead of on paper, as they do now.
Under the Republican proposals, in the final days before an election, General Assembly candidates would have to immediately notify election officials by e-mail of any contribution larger than $500. The same rule would apply to statewide candidates who received contributions larger than $1,000 in the final days before a vote.
Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.