Inflaming a contentious debate over voter identification laws, the Virginia State Board of Elections decided this week that, to cast a ballot, voters will have to present a current photo ID or one that expired within the past year.
The Republican-controlled board voted 2 to 0 Wednesday — with the Democratic member absent — to narrow the definition of valid identification, a move that one board member said would streamline and simplify the rules.
“We believe it’s a compromise and gives people a reasonable grace period,” said Donald Palmer, who was appointed to the board by then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).
But Democrats and voting rights advocates said the new rule will confuse voters less than two weeks before a special election in which the rule is expected to apply.
“The board’s decision today makes it that much more difficult for voters to participate in our democracy,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of Virginia New Majority. “Our elections should be free, fair and accessible. Needlessly restricting the forms of voting ID only makes it more difficult.”
The board’s decision is another development in a national debate over voter identification. Virginia has had identification requirements in place for years, but Republicans have recently pushed through legislation tightening the definition of what constitutes acceptable identification. They argued that previous rules were too loose and did not combat voter fraud.
Democrats say stricter voter ID laws are part of a Republican strategy to suppress the votes of minorities, the elderly, college students and the poor. They contend that many such voters are more likely to support Democrats and less likely to have valid identification under the new rule.
Nguyen said about 300,000 Virginia voters lack an ID issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. She also wondered how election officials would handle student and employee IDs, which often do not display expiration dates.
Of four scheduled special elections, only a Town Council race in Farmville will be subject to the new rule, a circumstance that could add to voter confusion, Nguyen said. The rule will apply to the general election in November, when voters will cast ballots in a U.S. Senate race and in all 11 of Virginia’s congressional districts.
The latest battle began with legislation — sponsored by state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) and approved by the General Assembly — that requires voters to present valid photo identification at state polling places. Previously, voters could choose from a long list of accepted forms of identification that did not necessarily include a photograph.
In early June, the Board of Elections approved a definition of what constitutes a “valid” photo ID that did not take into account the expiration date. Then, Obenshain wrote to the state board questioning its definition and sparking debate over what “valid” should mean.
“Given the significance of this issue and the clear tension between elements of this rule and provisions of state election law, I would urge the Board of Elections to revisit this matter immediately and to open any subsequent action to public comment,” Obenshain wrote.
The board proposed that valid identification include current IDs and IDs that had not expired more than 30 days before. In an opinion sought by the election board, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who defeated Obenshain for the job last fall, said a 30-day expiration limit could be applied inconsistently. Herring was not asked to weigh in on the definition approved Wednesday.
The board took public comment for three weeks, and when the time arrived to make a decision Wednesday, it came up with another option entirely — that officials not accept photo identification that had expired more than one year before Election Day.
Valid forms of ID include a driver’s license or other photo ID issued by Virginia, a U.S. passport, a photo ID issued by the federal government, a student ID that has a photograph and was issued by a school in Virginia, and an employee ID card with a photograph.
Voting rights advocates say a voter can obtain a free photo ID from any local registrar's office. More information can be obtained by visiting www.GotIDVirginia.org or by calling the election protection hotline at 1-866-687-8683 (OUR-VOTE).