RICHMOND — Voter identification laws are a hot issue in Virginia and across the country. Republicans say such laws combat voter fraud, which they insist is widespread. Democrats say the laws discourage voting by minority and elderly citizens who may be less likely to have a photo ID.
The debate has played out in Virginia, where Republicans control the General Assembly and a Democrat is governor, with few signs of a compromise.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1256, which required Virginia voters to present a driver's license, passport or other photo ID in order to cast a ballot. The bill — which was signed into law by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican — also provided free photo IDs to citizens who needed one.
Democrats challenged the law, but in December, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it. "Not only does the substance of SB 1256 not impose an undue burden on minority voting, there was no evidence to suggest racially discriminatory intent in the law's enactment," the Richmond-based appellate court ruled.
However, the ruling was hardly the last word on the subject.
During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers introduced 11 bills concerning voter ID. Democrats submitted six measures to roll back the ID requirements or expand the types of IDs acceptable to election officials. Republicans sponsored five bills to make the requirements stricter, including proving citizenship before voting.
Of the bills, four Republican proposals passed. Those measures were all vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and Republican legislators could not muster the two-thirds majority vote to override any of the vetoes.
The vetoed bills were:
•Senate Bill 1253, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. It sought to require electronic pollbooks to include photographs of registered voters. In rejecting the bill, McAuliffe cited administrative and privacy concerns.
•House Bill 2343, by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville. It would have made the Virginia Department of Elections provide local registrars with a list of voters registered in multiple states. McAuliffe said this bill also would create an administrative burden.
•HB 1428, filed by Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Glen Allen, and SB 872, by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian. They sought to require voters applying for an absentee ballot to submit a copy of a photo ID.
When a House subcommittee held a hearing on HB 1428, Fowler said it was an effort to plug a hole in the existing voting system.
"We require folks to have a photo ID to cast a ballot here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Of course, we do not require that for an absentee ballot," Fowler said. "I think that kind of seems like a hole in the wall, and I think with the number of people who vote absentee, we should also require a photo ID for voting absentee."
Opponents of the legislation said it would unfairly target localities where a lot of people vote absentee, like Falls Church.
"The city had the largest turnout of absentee voters in the state in the presidential election at 25 percent. So I come here with some knowledge of how the implementation of this bill would affect us," David Bjerke, voter registrar for Falls Church, told lawmakers. "It would do more to discourage absentee voting by mail than it would do to protect a vote."
Not everyone involved in the election process agreed.
Clara Belle Wheeler, the vice chair of the Virginia Board of Elections, supported Fowler's bill. She also opposed legislation that would add IDs from out-of-state colleges and state-run nursing homes to the list of identification cards acceptable at the polls.
Wheeler would like to see people present a photo ID and proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. That is the only way for registrars to verify whether the person filling out the application is a citizen, she said.
"Voter registration is based on the honor system. So if someone fills out an application and they mark that they are a citizen, the general registrar has no means of checking whether or not that person is a citizen," Wheeler said.
HB 1428 subsequently won approval on party-line votes in the House, 65-31, and the Senate, 21-19. But in March, McAuliffe vetoed the bill.
"The right to vote is a fundamental tenet of our democracy, and we should be doing all we can to facilitate eligible citizens' access to the ballot," McAuliffe said in his veto message. "This bill would undoubtedly result in the disenfranchisement of qualified eligible Virginian voters and increase the potential for costly and time-consuming litigation."