Sunday, May 20, 2012

Virginia's General Assembly and the New Voter Identification Law

On Friday, Governor McDonnell signed into law one of the most contentious bills from this year's General Assembly:  a revision of Virginia's voter identification law.


Currently, Code of Virginia Section 24.2-643 allows an individual without identification to vote if he signs a statement attesting to his identity:
If a voter is entitled to vote except that he is unable to present one of the forms of identification, he shall be allowed to vote after signing a statement ...that he is the named registered voter who he claims to be.
A number of Republican legislators argued that the current version of the law is too lenient and that every voter should be required to produce identification. They posited that if a person is determined to commit election fraud, the signature requirement (and the potential of felony charges for lying) was not a sufficient deterrent.

The Republicans proposed legislation that amended Section 24.2-643 by deleting the possibility of a signed statement in lieu of identification.

Democratic legislators opposed the bill, stating that (1) there is little evidence of voter fraud in Virginia and (2) a stricter identification requirement would especially burden poor and minority voters, who are less likely to possess the necessary identification documents.


The language signed by Governor McDonnell (HB 9, also filed as SB 1) does remove the possibility of a sworn statement, but it makes a concession to the bill's opponents by adding a number of new documents that can be presented to establish one's identity, including:
  1. A student id card from a Virginia college or university
  2. A utility bill
  3. A bank statement
  4. A pay stub
If the individual cannot present any identification at the voting booth, he or she may still cast a vote, but it's a provisional vote -- only counted if he subsequently mails one of the permitted forms of identification to the registrar.


I'm not sure how I feel about voter identification laws. On one hand, I think that voting should be made relatively easy, in order to encourage people to participate in elections (to this end, I wish that elections were spread out over two or three days, including at least one weekend day).  Identification requirements could hinder some people from voting, and in this respect perhaps a signed statement should suffice.

On the other hand, asking voters to produce some kind of document to verify their identity does not seem all that onerous, particularly if the list of permitted documents includes non-photo identification such as a utility bill. From a civics perspective, the identification requirement reinforces the seriousness of voting, and this is a good thing.

So, I am torn. At first glance, I think the new law does a fair job of balancing the competing concerns, but I'll want to see whether it decreases voter turnout prior to making a final judgment.