RICHMOND — State laws requiring voters to present photo identification and preventing felons from casting ballots disenfranchise voters and violate their civil rights, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday by the Democratic Party of Virginia.
The suit is part of a national campaign by Democrats — reportedly paid for by billionaire financier George Soros — to reverse strict voting laws. Similar suits are pending in Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina with more to come, according to the lawyer who brought the suit.
The lawsuit is the Democrats’ response to what they say is a GOP strategy to suppress the votes of minorities, young voters and the poor — all groups of voters they say are more likely to support Democrats and less likely to have valid ID.
Republicans have said that voter-ID laws prevent fraud at the polls.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) called the lawsuit a “disingenuous challenge” and said Virginia is one of more than a dozen states with photo ID laws that have withstood scrutiny.
“This is another politically motivated lawsuit funded by George Soros and out-of-state interest groups who are seeking to manipulate the court system in order to benefit the Democratic Party,” Howell said in a statement. Virginia’s law “protects the rights of individuals and the integrity of the democratic process,” he said.
The suit was filed on behalf of two Virginia activists by Marc E. Elias of Perkins Coie, who is general counsel to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign and formerly represented the successful gubernatorial campaign of Terry McAuliffe (D) as well as Mark R. Herring (D) in the recount that sealed his election as state attorney general in 2013.
In addition, Elias is behind challenges to Virginia’s elections maps at the state and congressional levels, which could force the state to redraw district boundaries this fall.
“I have a lot of clients. I have brought other lawsuits in Virginia,” Elias said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that the Speaker and I are on opposite sides of the law here as well.”
Elias declined to comment on Soros’s role, which was first reported by the New York Times.
Herring, who represents another defendant, the State Board of Elections, declined to comment on the suit through a spokesman.
Although the state has long required ID from voters at the polls, former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed a law that went into effect last year requiring IDs with photos from anyone wishing to cast a ballot.
On the flip side, McDonnell and McAuliffe have worked to make it easier for nonviolent felons who have served their sentences to vote. Still, the lawsuit says, a legislative remedy is needed.
The plaintiffs are Barbara H. Lee, an African American resident of Staunton, and Gonzalo J. Aida Brescia, a Latino resident of Richmond.
The lawsuit doesn’t mince words to suggest that the laws in question continue a long-standing pattern of racial discrimination in Virginia.
“Virginia has a lengthy history of discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities,” from slavery to segregation and “massive resistance” to then-U.S. Sen. George Allen’s use of a racial slur in 2006 to describe a staffer from his opponent’s campaign.
After President Obama carried Virginia in 2012, the suit says, Republicans were “determined to stall, if not reverse, the growing success of the Democratic Party in Virginia.” The 2013 law was “designed to reduce disproportionately the turnout of these core Democratic constituencies and Democratic voters more broadly.”
Plaintiffs also blame the GOP majority in the legislature for not solving “Virginia’s recurring problem of long wait times to vote — a problem that disproportionately burdens African Americans, Latinos, young voters and Democrats.”