By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG – A new poll says a strong majority of Virginians, including Democrats, supports a photo-ID requirement at the polls. But Gov. Bob McDonnell may not be one of them.
The General Assembly on Wednesday gave final approval to Senate Bill 1256, requiring voters to present valid picture identification to cast a ballot, beginning in 2014.
The 65-34 vote in the House of Delegates, following a 21-20 vote in the Senate, was almost entirely along party lines. Only three House Republicans — S. Chris Jones of Suffolk, Tom Rust of Herndon and Joe Yost of Blacksburg — voted against the measure. Delegate Johnny Joannou was the lone Democrat to support it.
The push for photo-ID gained traction after Watchdog.org exposed a Northern Virginia Democratic operative discussing ways to use forged utility bills to vote illegally last fall.
A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday showed broad bipartisan backing for a photo-ID law.
According to the Feb. 14-18 survey of 1,112 registered voters in the state, Virginians favor photo-ID, 75-23. Support is 95-4 percent among Republicans, 57-41 percent among Democrats, 78-20 percent among Independents, 79-19 percent among white voters and 66-34 percent among black voters.
“There appears to be overwhelming support among Virginia voters for a number of measures that went through the legislative process,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, based in Hamden, Conn.
But McDonnell isn’t saying whether he will sign the legislation, authored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.
The governor’s office told Watchdog that McDonnell “believes Virginia’s current system generally has proven successful.”
“Following last year’s changes in our voter identification laws to further protect the integrity of the electoral process, Virginians turned out in high numbers to vote in the presidential election. It was a successful test of our system,” the GOP governor’s statement said.
“With the expanded acceptable forms of voter identification, the instances of citizens having to file provisional ballots were relatively miniscule with only approximately 600 provisional ballots used statewide out of about 3.8 million votes cast. The system worked as designed to prevent voter fraud, and to ensure that registered voters were able to cast their ballots and trust that their vote would be counted.”
McDonnell’s communication director, Tucker Martin, said the governor “will carefully review any legislation passed by the General Assembly on this issue.”
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who cast the tie-breaker to get SB 1256 through the Senate and is considering an independent run for governor this year, did not respond to Watchdog’s request for comment.
The administration’s open-ended position did not satisfy the Virginia Voters Alliance, an election-watch group that lobbied for stricter ID controls at the polls.
Reagan George, president of VVA, contended that the number of provisional ballots cast in the last election was much higher than the governor’s figure.
“(The governor) gives a false sense of security to Virginia voters, that their election process had some semblance of integrity,” George said. He asserted that “20,000 to 40,000” of the state-issued (non-photo) voter registration cards issued last year went to deceased voters.
George added that “an unknowable number of registrations from people who had moved out of state or elsewhere were reprinted, so people living in a recently purchased home or rented apartment received voter registration cards in the mail, not only for themselves, but prior owners or renters.”
Still, photo ID remains controversial with Democratic lawmakers, who likened the measure to a “poll tax” and feared it would “disenfranchise” voters.
“Besides the huge cost to implement and maintain the new government program, photo ID requirements represent one of the most serious threats in decades to our efforts to ensure the right of every eligible citizen to vote and have their vote counted” said Lynn Gordon, president of the Virginia League of Women Voters.
David DeBiasi, an associate state director for the AARP, asserted that, “Photo ID requirements disproportionately impact people of color, rural voters, young people, the homeless, low-income people, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, frequent movers, and persons in large households. “
State officials estimate that fewer than 5 percent of adult Virginians do not already have driver’s licenses. For those without a valid picture ID, Obenshain’s bill directs that county registrar’s office provide free voter photo ID cards to anyone requesting one.
But critics see two problems there.
The liberal-leaning Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis notes that “precursor” documents, such as birth certificates, required to obtain the IDs are not necessarily free.
The Institute also believes that officials’ annual cost estimate of $200,000 for the program is wildly understated.
Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, says the requirement “seems like an expensive addition to each county and cities’ already-swamped registrar’s offices.”
But supporters of the bill say photo-ID does not place an undue burden on Virginians.
“The biggest irony,” Jackson said, is that attendees at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina last year were required “to bring a government-issued photo identification.”
Even if McDonnell signs off on SB 1256, the U.S. Department of Justice must give final approval. The DoJ has bounced photo-ID laws from South Carolina and Texas.
Yet Virginia officials are optimistic that their law would stand up, noting that it mirrors Georgia’s photo-ID requirement, which has been in effect for several years.
Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the national election-watch group, True the Vote, told Watchdog she wasn’t surprised by Virginians’ support for photo-ID.
“Old Dominion residents, particularly in the northern part of the commonwealth, know it’s practically impossible to function as an adult without photo ID.
“SB 1256 symbolizes what we mean when we say, ‘It should be easy to vote and hard to cheat.’”
Quentin Kidd, chairman of the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University, says there’s a political explanation to the governor’s fence-straddling.
“To be fair, he has an eye on DoJ and how to thread a needle so the will of the General Assembly can be upheld and the state doesn’t run into the wrong side of a court ruling,” Kidd said.
More immediately, Kidd suggested McDonnell is mindful that Democrats might balk at the administration’s transportation bill if he were to sign off on photo-ID now.
“There’s been a lot of back-channel communication regarding legislation that’s wrapped around the transportation bill. He’s trying to keep an eye on his legacy and what he wants to do going forward.”
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward