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Senate approves voter ID bill; separate House bill advances

By and Errin Haines,

RICHMOND — A GOP-sponsored bill to tighten voter identification rules cleared the Senate on Friday with help from Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who also supported a Democrat’s amendment to delay the change.

But the bill, which originated in the House, now returns to the lower chamber because the Senate amended it. Also Friday, a House committee approved a separate Senate voter ID bill, which now heads to the full House.

Both pieces of legislation — House Bill 1337 and Senate Bill 1256 — would remove several forms of identification, including utility bills and paychecks, that the General Assembly added last year to the list of IDs accepted at the polls. SB1256, sponsored by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), would go further, requiring that voters present photo identification.

Bolling, who presides over the Senate and is exploring an independent bid for governor, broke two tie votes related to HB1337, which is sponsored by Dels. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania) and Rob R. Bell III (R-Albemarle). The lieutenant governor first sided with Democrats to delay implementation until July 2014 and further specify that it not take effect until money is appropriated to educate voters about the change. But he then voted with his party to pass the underlying bill.

Bolling took the same middle-of-the-road stance earlier this month on another voter ID bill, which has since died, voting with Democrats on an amendment to delay implementation but siding with the GOP to pass the bill itself. He said then that he supports stricter voter ID standards but wants to give voters more time to adjust to any changes, particularly given that the rules were altered just last year.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law to close a loophole that had allowed Virginians to vote without presenting identification. But the law also greatly expanded the list of acceptable IDs to include utility bills, bank statements, government checks, paychecks, concealed weapons permits and student IDs.

Many of those forms of identification would be removed under HB1337, leaving voter registration cards, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, government-issued IDs and photo workplace IDs as forms accepted at the polls.

SB1256 would apply a stricter standard, requiring that voters present photo identification. Voters would need a government-issued photo ID that includes their address, such as driver’s license or passport, a photo ID from a Virginia college or university, or a workplace ID bearing a photo. As part of the bill, the commonwealth would provide, free of charge, voter registration cards with photographs. The current registration cards, which do not have photos, would no longer be accepted.

Republicans pushing for tighter ID standards cited the need to protect the integrity of elections. They pointed to an undercover 2012 campaign video in which the son of Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) can be heard discussing how a utility bill could be used to commit voter fraud. The office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and Arlington police investigated but did not charge the congressman’s son, Patrick Moran.

Democrats have called the GOP’s voter ID bills an attempt at “voter suppression,” saying the measures would make it harder for minorities, the elderly and students to vote.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has not taken a position on voter ID legislation under consideration this year. He sought last year to blunt criticism that the 2012 voter ID law would disenfranchise some voters, issuing an executive order that elections officials mail new voter ID cards to registered voters across the state.

Asked about this year’s bills Friday, McDonnell’s office issued a statement saying he would review any legislation that gets to his desk but also suggesting that he is satisfied with the current requirements.

“Following last year’s changes in our voter identification laws to further protect the integrity of the electoral process, Virginians turned out in high numbers to vote in the presidential election,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. “It was a successful test of our system. With the expanded acceptable forms of voter identification, the instances of citizens having to file provisional ballots were relatively minuscule, with only approximately 600 provisional ballots used statewide out of about 3.8 million votes cast. The system worked as designed to prevent voter fraud, and to ensure that registered voters were able to cast their ballots and trust that their vote would be counted. The governor believes Virginia’s current system generally has proven successful. He will carefully review any legislation passed by the General Assembly on this issue.”

This post has been updated.

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