RICHMOND — A federal judge on Thursday upheld Virginia's voter- identification requirement, dealing a blow to a national push by Democrats to remove laws they say disenfranchise minority and poor voters.
If the lawsuit ultimately succeeds, it could give Democrats an edge in the presidential race in a swing state with a recent spate of close elections.
In his 62-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson rejected the argument that a photo-ID requirement was “arbitrary and unfair” and severely burdened voters who tend to favor Democratic candidates.
“Virginia has provided all of its citizens with an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process,” with the availability of in-person voting, absentee voting, provisional ballots and free IDs, he wrote.
“Mindful that the Court’s mission is to judge not the wisdom of the Virginia voter ID law, but rather its constitutionality,” the law does not violate the Voting Rights Act or any amendments, he wrote.
The challenge was brought by two activists and the state Democratic Party. They were represented by Marc E. Elias, who is general counsel to Democratic front-
runner Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and has worked for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D).
The Republican-controlled state legislature approved a
voter-ID requirement in 2013. It was signed into law by McAuliffe's Republican predecessor, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
Elias said he is considering filing an expedited appeal in hopes that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit hears the case before the November election.
“The purpose of this lawsuit was to ensure that all Virginians are able to exercise their right to vote without being subject to unwarranted obstacles,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s unfortunate that a Republican legislature and then a Republican governor engaged in a process to makes it harder to vote.”
Lawyers including Elias have filed similar lawsuits across the country to reverse strict voting laws. The national effort is being underwritten by a $5 million contribution by billionaire financier George Soros, said his his spokesman, Michael Vachon.
A Wisconsin case is being heard currently, a decision is pending in Ohio, and a North Carolina case will be heard by the 4th Circuit in June in Richmond, Elias said.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) called the lawsuit a “politically motivated” waste of taxpayer dollars, and said most Virginians support the “common sense law” requiring voter ID.
“Unfortunately, their lawsuit unnecessarily cost Virginia taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said in a statement. “It is also unfortunate that Virginia was once again unable to rely on its elected Attorney General to defend the law of the Commonwealth.”
Herring appointed an independent counsel, Mark F. "Thor" Hearne II, to defend the law. The case cost taxpayers more than $775,000 according to a Newport News Daily Press analysis of legal bills.
In addition to the voter-ID piece, the lawsuit, which was filed last June, initially alleged that the state unfairly burdens voters with long lines at certain polling stations and blocks convicted felons from voting.
The judge previously dismissed those claims.