Local Commentary

From the Front Row: Kaye Kory’s Richmond Report

The deadline for the Governor to amend, veto or sign the 813 bills sent to him by the General Assembly from the 2013 session has passed. We are now learning which bills he has signed into law, which ones he has vetoed and the amendments he has made.

He is publicizing the issues he deems most noteworthy, such as the comprehensive transportation bill. I voted for hat bill, HB 2313, and believe that its passage is a notable achievement. While the Governor has added some amendments, I believe the outcomes remain the same.

However, today I want to address a bill that I am outraged to find that the Governor has signed: the Voter ID bill, HB 1337. There were many attacks on voting rights in this year’s General Assembly session. I worked hard to protect the voting process and was able to help build coalitions that prevented the most serious attacks. But HB 1337 was passed and now has been approved by the Governor. It is very important that I explain the details of this legislation and its likely ramifications to you.

HB 1337 requires that Virginia voters possess and present at the polls a current identification card which can be one of the following: a Virginia concealed handgun permit, a current Virginia drivers license, a Virginia voter identification card, a student identification card issued by any Virginia institution of higher learning, an employee identification card issued by an employer of the voter in the ordinary course of business’ (i.e., not issued for the purpose of voting), an identification card from an agency of the Commonwealth, one of its political subdivisions (a county, city or town) or an agency of the United States government. A Social Security card, a recent utility bill, a valid bank statement, a government-issued check or paycheck displaying the name and address of the voter are no longer legal and valid means of voter identification. Why is this so troubling?

This is very troubling because any change in the list of acceptable forms of voter identification at the polls creates confusion for voters and poll workers alike. And confusion causes delays and longer lines of voters waiting to vote. And longer lines result in voters becoming discouraged or simply running out of time, and turning away. It is inevitable that the forms of identification which are newly illegal will be presented and that the wait to vote will become longer while the new regulations are explained. That voter will redirected to cast a provisional ballot or simply gives up and doesn’t vote. Many forms of identification that have been eliminated, such as the Social Security card, are those most commonly used by voters who do not have a drivers license. Those voters are likely to be elderly, low income and/or newly registered–exactly the voters who may have the most difficulty understanding and the most difficulty finding the new voting regulations.

We know from history that any changes in the voting process cut down on the number of voters–witness the voter and poll worker confusion and frustration displayed last year when the Governor mandated that new voter identification cards be mailed out statewide and the inevitable errors had to be handled at the polls. I received two voter ID cards which seemed exactly the same to me, but did have different issue dates. Not knowing if the issue date made a difference, but knowing that simply being recognized by a poll worker who has known me for 20 years was no longer acceptable identification, I took both cards with me. The poll worker had to decide if the cards were exactly the same and if the different issue dates were significant. She also told me about other voters whose voter cards did contain errors and how frustrating it was to deal with an exasperated voter. All this takes time and increases the time that voter stand in line. Just describing my problem (which turned out not to be no problem at all) is frustrating and time-consuming. Multiply that by hundreds of voters and know casting a vote will take even longer than last year.

This year we members of the General Assembly had an opportunity to learn from the problems of the last election and improve and simplify the voting process. And what was accomplished in that window of opportunity?

Were the days available for absentee-in- person voting extended? NO. Was the definition of a medical emergency which would allow a voter to immediately cast an absentee-in-person vote clarified and/or expanded? NO. Were the hours that polling places are open lengthened? NO. Were voting materials (such as explanations of constitutional amendments or voting instructions) required to be at every polling place where a large language minority could be expected? NO. Were voters for whom English is a second language allowed to take a translator with them, as citizens taking a drivers license are allowed to do? NO. Were more voting machines per polling place required? NO. Were electronic voter-verification books required at all polling places? NO. Were weather problems which could prevent voters from getting to the polls in time recognized and planned for? NO. Were the voter identification requirements changed and narrowed? YES. Are new voter ID cards now going to be mailed out statewide at a cost of at least $2 million of taxpayers’ money? YES.

HB 1337 was described during the debate on the House floor as a measure to prevent voter fraud and an attempt to keep the voting process pure. However, we all know that the chances of voter fraud occurring are about the same as having a polling place struck by lightening. Changing voting regulations always causes confusion and prevents some folks from voting. Eliminating forms of ID that have been acceptable for years is guaranteed to cause confusion and longer lines at the polls. Voting is a Constitutionally-guaranteed right ; not a reward to be won by navigating a state-designed maze that changes every year.

Voter education is even more important since the Governor has signed HB 1337. We must have widespread and continuous voter education describing these changes. We must be certain that our families, neighbors and friends carry proper identification to the polls in the 2014 election. We must work hard to be sure that every registered voter can vote.