(The Center Square) – Legislation that repeals Virginia's law requiring photo identification to vote went into effect this month and will be applicable in the general election in November.
Rather than showing photo identification, voters now are allowed to show other documents that display their name and address, such as voter registration documents, paychecks and utility statements. If the person does not have any of those forms of identification, he or she can sign a sworn affidavit declaring who they are under the penalty of a Class 5 felony if caught lying.
The repeal of requiring photo identification was supported overwhelmingly by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. Democratic lawmakers argued that repealing the law ensured every person will have the right to vote, and Republicans cautioned it would make voter fraud easier.
Until former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed voter identification legislation in 2013, Virginia did not have photo identification requirements to vote.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, told The Center Square rampant fraud did not exist before that law and it was put in place to suppress the vote. Locke was the main sponsor of the Senate version of the new law, Senate Bill 65.
“The benefit is that this law makes it easier for citizens to vote and treats all voters the same,” Locke said. “It removes an unnecessary restrictive barrier that was discriminatory against minorities and those without photo identification, like senior citizens who no longer drive and [those] without birth certificates.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, however, argues voter identification laws help secure the integrity of elections.
“Photo ID isn’t just common sense. It’s massively popular,” Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, told The Center Square. “Nearly three out of four Virginians supported it. Democrats were able to produce record turnout while Virginia’s law was in place. Repealing it removes one more safeguard that ensured the integrity of our elections, and that’s deeply concerning.”
Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who co-sponsored the House’s version of the photo identification repeal, said in-person voter fraud is not an issue in Virginia – or nationally. He said there is not much to gain with this type of fraud because it only gives your candidate one additional vote, but there are serious penalties if a person does it, which he said are easy to prove.
Photo identification requirements disenfranchised voters, particularly the elderly, young, poor and minorities, said Levine, noting the requirement also made it difficult to vote for people who recently moved and had not updated their photo identification. He said he expects the repeal to increase voter turnout for these groups.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who helped craft the original voter identification law, told The Center Square the genesis of that law goes back to the 2000 presidential election, in which George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in a close Florida race that decided the election. The result led to a series of legal challenges, and Obenshain said voter identification laws were to help clear up some of the confusion.
“I strongly support [the voter identification laws],” Obenshain said. “I think it’s important.”
At the time, Obenshain said a lot of Democrats were warning of voter fraud, but now Democrats say it’s voter suppression.
“I guess it depends on what year it is,” Obenshain said.
Obenshain cautioned that every time voting requirements are loosened, the state is inviting voter fraud. He said Democrats have been alleging people are being denied the right to vote, but they’ve never been able to find anyone who has been disenfranchised or brought a lawsuit against the state with that claim, despite previous efforts.
Jenny Glass, the director of advocacy for the the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, told The Center Square concerns about voter fraud are a myth perpetuated to suppress votes.
“The repeal of the voter ID law takes us back to 2012, when you could use a utility bill or your voter identification card to prove your identity, as well as more common forms of identification, like a driver’s license, to cast a ballot,” Glass said. “When the forms of acceptable IDs were more limited, it disproportionately impacted people who are already underrepresented at the polls, like students, people with lower income, and people with disabilities. Now more people will have access to voting instead of facing unnecessary hurdles.”
Stephen Haner, a senior fellow for state and local tax policy at the free-market think tank Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, took a more nuanced approach.
“Based on my decades of observation of the process, and I’ve been an election officer now for several elections, adding the photo ID didn’t greatly improve security nor did it disenfranchise many – if any – voters,” Haner said. “It just became a popular political football. What we need to look at is the absentee voting process, adding more security there. The funny business I’ve seen in Virginia over the years involved absentee ballots, and 2020 will see a record number of those with ‘no excuse’ absentee.”