RICHMOND — Virginia legislators are preparing to take on the thorny subject of voter identification laws during the upcoming General Assembly session amid national controversy that includes the Justice Department’s rejection of a state law on the matter for the first time in almost 20 years.
More than 30 states have introduced such legislation, but the issue is likely to receive heightened scrutiny in Virginia because the Old Dominion is certain to play a crucial role in the calculus for President Obama’s re-election efforts.
A handful of bills intended to bolster reliability of voter identification and absentee balloting have been filed in advance of the assembly session, which begins Jan. 11. One bill from Sen. Stephen H. Martin would eliminate the state’s voter registration card from the list of identification forms that voters can use at the polls. The bill also contains a measure mandating that voters who do not have proper identification cast provisional ballots.
Mr. Martin, Chesterfield Republican, said he has introduced such legislation at least six times over the course of his 24-year legislative career.
The rationale is simple: “The desire to have someone know that the person voting is, in fact, the person voting,” he said.
Virginians can vote without presenting identification if they sign a sworn statement attesting that they are who they say they are.
“For goodness’ sakes, if someone went from polling place to polling place and did that, how are you ever going to track that person down?” Mr. Martin said. “The integrity of the process is critically important.”
Delegate Mark Cole, Stafford Republican and chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, has introduced similar legislation, which cleared the House last year but languished in a Senate subcommittee. He said bill was introduced last year at the request of the Stafford County Electoral Board.
“I think this is an important thing to ensure voter integrity,” he said. “If people start losing faith in the electoral process, I think it undermines a critical foundation of our society.”
Mr. Cole also has introduced a bill that, with the exception of family members, would prevent people from soliciting absentee ballot applications and ballots in hospitals and nursing homes. Another bill would forbid someone from helping more than two people cast their ballots in one election. Both bills would exempt local registrar staff or local electoral board staff.
“I don’t want to deny anyone the right to vote — certainly not,” Mr. Cole said. “But I want to make sure the name of the person who’s on the absentee ballot is the one who requested it and the one who is casting the vote.”
Mr. Cole did not provide specific examples, but he said he has heard of complaints from people who find that loved ones in nursing homes with diminished mental capacity have been casting absentee ballots. He said he also has heard anecdotes about workers at such facilities simply rounding up votes.
Democrats have maintained that the push for new laws has less to do with combating voter fraud than making it more difficult for groups such as minorities, which broke overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama in 2008, to cast ballots.
“There is a concerted effort around the country to make it more difficult, for particularly young people and minorities, to vote,” said Delegate David L. Englin, Alexandria Democrat. “Virginia Republicans were pushing this issue well before Barack Obama came onto the scene. It just so happens that this year, if they’re successful, it will make it easier for them to defeat Barack Obama.”
The efforts this year for voter ID come on the heels of the Justice Department’s rejection of a South Carolina law. The ruling said photo ID requirements would make voting more difficult for minorities. The state’s Republican attorney general, Alan Wilson, is fighting that decision.
Anything passed in Virginia would be reviewed by the federal government because the commonwealth is one of a handful of mostly Southern states that fall under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, intended to prohibit discrimination against minority voters.
Voter ID laws in Indiana and Georgia in recent years have passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court and the Justice Department, respectively, and a handful of other states, including Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin, enacted similar laws last year.
Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, a Harrisonburg Republican who introduced voter ID bills in past sessions, criticized the Justice Department for politicizing the issue and said bills introduced in earlier years with provisions similar to the one Mr. Martin plans to sponsor are already in compliance with federal law.
“I do not believe anything introduced has any discriminatory effect,” said Mr. Obenshain, who added that he was anticipating heightened scrutiny from the federal government “whether they can do it with a straight face or not.”
“Heck, yeah, I expect it,” he said. “This has been one of the most politically partisan Justice Departments in recent history.”
As for addressing voter fraud, Mr. Englin was skeptical as to what the bills would accomplish. He said he has seen such legislation come and go as a member of an election subcommittee and not once did he hear an example of fraud that proposed legislation would have stopped.
“This is what we call in Richmond a bill in search of a problem,” he said.