Virginia voter ID law comes with a price
Democrats almost unanimously opposed the voter identification bill passed this year by the state assembly. And the bill’s critics say that a companion executive order signed last month by Gov. Bob McDonnell means that taxpayer money must now be spent to fix what they see as a discriminatory and unnecessary law.
The executive order supplements Senate Bill 1, which significantly strengthens the state’s requirement that voters must provide an approved form of identification at the polls. Previously, voters without ID could simply sign an affidavit affirming their identity. Under the new law, voters with no ID could cast a provisional ballot and then would have three days to present a valid ID.
Before signing the bill, McDonnell had sought to address fears that it could disenfranchise eligible voters who did not have valid identification. He proposed an amendment that would have allowed voters without ID to sign a waiver asserting their identity, which poll officials would have then matched with signatures on file. But legislators rejected McDonnell’s amendment during the special session, and McDonnell signed the bill into law without it.
McDonnell then issued an executive order instructing the State Board of Elections to send new voter registration cards, an acceptable form of ID under the new law, to all registered Virginia voters at a cost of $1.36 million. Board of Elections Secretary Donald Palmer said his group planned to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on additional voter outreach efforts.
Claire Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said McDonnell should have vetoed the bill rather than attempting to use the executive order to alleviate concerns that it would disenfranchise voters.
“We’re disappointed that he didn’t veto it,” Gastañaga said. “The bill will prevent some people from voting and there’s no real good reason for it. Anything they’re doing now is costing taxpayers money the taxpayers didn’t need to spend.”
In a release explaining the executive order, the McDonnell administration stated that “well over 99 percent” of Virginians complied with the state’s election laws.
“Only a handful of voters per precinct, on average, do not bring an approved ID document,” the release said.
Before the law passed, voters without identification could have signed an affirmation of identity, which carried with it felony penalties for lying. The Board of Elections was charged with identifying any irregularities, which Gastañaga compared to the IRS reviewing tax returns.
Proponents of the tougher requirements pointed to alleged cases of voter fraud and voter registration fraud as evidence the bill was needed. The Virginia State Police have investigated more than 400 allegations of fraud during the last five years and, as of April, filed charges against 38 people, according to a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
But it isn’t clear exactly how the ID requirements would have prevented these alleged violations.
According to the Times-Dispatch, many of these incidents involved allegations that felons illegally voted or registered to vote, and “none of the cases appeared to involve someone who misrepresented his or her identity at the polls to vote.”
Palmer said the voter ID law would not eliminate election fraud, but that it would reduce the risks.
“A requirement for proof of identity, photo or otherwise, basically mitigates the chance of any sort of irregularities,” Palmer said. “We’re charged with administering the elections in a fair manner.”
Under the new law, voters who come to the polls without ID will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, but it will not be counted unless they present an acceptable form of identification to the registrar before noon on the Friday after the election.
Palmer said suggestions that provisional ballots would increase training costs for poll workers lacked merit.
“I feel that that’s a little bit of a stretch because any election year, particularly presidential, there’s going to be training ad nauseum,” Palmer said.
But Gastañaga said it added another obstacle to casting a vote, regardless of cost.
“It imposes an additional burden on working people if they have to bring an ID back later in the week,” she said. “And it especially impacts older people or people who have a lower socio-economic status and might not drive.”
In other states, including South Carolina, the Justice Department has blocked attempts to implement more restrictive voter ID laws.
According to the Voting Rights Act, Virginia may not enact election procedures that abridge the voting rights of minority groups. That hurdle allowed the Justice Department to invalidate South Carolina’s voter ID law in December, because it said the state failed to prove that its law was not discriminatory against minority voters, who were nearly 20 percent more likely than whites to lack the necessary identification.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley tried to quell objections by offering voters free rides to the DMV to get IDs, but the program was not widely utilized.
By ordering the mailing of new voter registration cards, McDonnell may be trying to protect the state from similar challenges.
“The executive order is, at least in some respects, intended to allay any Justice Department concerns,” Gastañaga said. “Whether it’s effective or not remains to be seen, but it’s clearly an effort to oppose the idea that the law is discriminatory.”
Unlike South Carolina and more than a dozen other states, Virginia’s law does not require voters to carry a photo ID. Acceptable forms of identification will include voter registration cards, utility bills, social security cards, paychecks, college IDs, and driver’s licenses.
Palmer said that the Board of Elections would likely send the new voter cards in late September and that it should remove any accusations of discrimination.
“A voter card going to every voter is going to go a long way to ensuring that everyone will have an acceptable form of ID,” Palmer said. “In many ways, the ID bill is actually helping voters and giving them even more options. While it does require that every person provide some proof of identity, it also expands the number of IDs that are permissible.”
But Gastañaga questioned the reliability of voter registration information and expressed doubt that all the voter cards would reach their intended recipients.
“It’s interesting in a state where folks have talked about the economy and the budget that suddenly there’s more than a million dollars to spare in a circumstance where there is no assurance that the [voter cards] are going to the right people or getting there on time, especially with recent redistricting,” Gastañaga said.
Palmer said the voter cards would be paid for with a combination of state money and federal funds from the Help America Vote Act. In the Board of Elections planning documents, the group said it hoped to secure additional funds from the Department of Planning and Budget, “especially as it relates to funding the voter card mailing.”
Opponents argued that even a seemingly modest $1 million investment in the voter identification law would be too much because it wouldn’t actually decrease fraud.
“In this economy, we have too few dollars for education, public safety and transportation, we should not be wasting valued monies to suppress voting,” Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), told the Times-Dispatch. “This is now a costly boondoggle and an affront to Virginians and the Constitution.”
Palmer said the executive order would increase costs, but noted that the budget for the Board of Elections normally increased during presidential election years.
“We pretty much have our baseline budget for the State Board of Elections and general registrars and we do get a little bit extra money for presidential years,” Palmer said. “But I think that’s prudent for any budget.”
But because the order to spend $1.36 million on voter cards came from the governor and not the legislature, Gastañaga said it represented another example of the “Washingtonization of Virginia.”
“The ultimate irony here is that the executive order is just like the presidential signing statements that everybody criticizes when the Washington does it,” Gastañaga said. “People criticize the President for circumventing Congress, but the same thing happened here.”
Photo: Virginia State Capitol via Shutterstock.