The 2012 session of Virginia's General Assembly was met with dual voter identification bills Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 9. Both were designed to make the display of identification by voters at the polls mandatory. Existing law requires voters to have identification, but if they do not, they can sign a form affirming they are who they say they are. Citing voter fraud, Republican legislators introduced the legislation.
Like other southern states, Virginia has a sordid past with respect to voting rights. A couple of generations ago, voters were frequently denied access to the polls simply because they could not answer the right questions, or pay the poll tax, or more than likely, because of the color of their skin. In Virginia, we have moved past that chapter of our history. We elected the nation's first African-American governor since Reconstruction. We have built a dynamic economy and have seen our population swell to a diverse eight million people. We are hardly the sleepy, rural landscape of antebellum stories. We are a dynamic commonwealth of opportunity for people from all walks of life.
Despite that, legislators were determined to stamp out voter fraud. Citing a few cases, primarily about people with felony convictions who have attempted to register, Republicans pushed forward with the voter identification bills this year. Voter fraud must be wiped out wherever it exists. We owe it to the people to ensure that the electoral process is as transparent and free of error as possible. We have an obligation to ensure that only those who are entitled to vote, vote, and that the vote is accurately counted. However, particularly given our history of discrimination, we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone who is eligible to exercise the franchise has access to the polls.
The voter identification bills moved through the General Assembly of Virginia on a party line basis. Republicans control the House of Delegates by a wide margin. The Senate is divided equally, but the presiding officer, the Lieutenant Governor, is a Republican and breaks ties on the floor. The two bills went into a conference committee, which developed the final compromise. The forms of identification required by the new law include those that were formerly in the law: the voter registration card, social security card, valid Virginia driver's license, "or any other identification card issued by a government agency" within Virginia or from the federal government, or a current employee photo ID card. Under the new law, a voter may also use a student identification card from a four-year college or university in Virginia, or "a current utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck that shows the name and address of the voter." If a voter cannot identify themselves in such fashion, that voter will be issued a provisional ballot and will have to come back with a valid identification before the ballots are canvassed the day after the election.
While possession of identification in the form outlined in the bill might sound reasonable, there are some people who simply fall through the cracks. Apartment dwellers, those who are unemployed, new Americans and folks at the lower strata of the socioeconomic sphere could effectively be disenfranchised. My concern is that another group of Americans could be affected too. Several generations ago, older Americans were taken care of at home, by families. In today's transient world, where people struggle the best they can to just to keep going, many Americans now live in nursing homes. My concern with this legislation is that people in their golden years who do not drive, do not work, do not have utility bills and have moved from place to place, may not have a valid identification anymore. These citizens, who have given everything they have over a lifetime to this country, will be denied the right to participate in the electoral process. This prospect is not fair and, in my view, is just wrong. Particularly when there is absolutely no evidence of widespread voter fraud, there is no need for this legislation. While I remain hopeful that the governor will veto these bills, I take greater solace in the action of the US Department of Justice respecting similar legislation which passed in South Carolina and Texas.
Senator Creigh Deeds has represented Virginia's twenty-fifth district in the Virginia Senate since 2001. He is a member of the Committees on Privileges and Elections, Transportation, and General Laws. He was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Virginia in 2009, and the 2005 nominee for Attorney General of Virginia. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates for 10 years from 1991-2001, working on economic and criminal reforms. Deeds attended Concord College and studied law at Wake Forest University School of Law.
Suggested citation: Creigh Deeds, Voter ID Laws Will Create Barriers to Virginia Voters, JURIST - Hotline, Apr. 17, 2011, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/04/creigh-deeds-voter-id.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Jordan Barry, an assistant editor for JURIST's professional commentary
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