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Voter ID law has Virginia Democrats scrambling

Editor’s Note: In recent years, a spate of states have passed laws requiring voters to show identification before casting a ballot. Supporters of these measures say they prevent voter fraud; opponents say they disenfranchise minorities, students, and urban and older voters who are less likely to have state-issued IDs such as driver’s licenses. Matt Laslo of Virginia Public Radio reports that the new law in Virginia has voting rights advocates scrambling.

Virginia’s new voter ID law has Virginia Democrats worried after the state board of elections found nearly 200,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license.

Back in 2013 when Virginia and a string of other Republican controlled state legislatures were pushing forward with new voter ID laws, Attorney General Eric Holder likened the laws to “poll taxes” and promised an NAACP audience the government would protect minorities.

“In our efforts to protect voting rights and to prevent voter fraud, we will be vigilant and we will be strong. But let me be clear … we will not allow political pretext to disenfranchise American citizens of their most basic right.”

Virginia Democrats worry that’s what’s happening now. The State Board of Elections reports 198,000 registered voters don’t own a driver’s license. Robert Dempsey, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, says many of those are minorities and elderly voters. He says that’s changing their get out the vote strategy.

“We are incorporating that into our phone calls and our direct voter contact programs. It’s just one more thing to be considerate of, so we are targeting those voters who we feel might need that extra reminder, a little bit more push now with the ID law.”

Other forms of ID are acceptable, including passports and student IDs from Virginia institutions, though Dempsey worries people may not know that.

“I am concerned that there is some misinformation out there, also just a perception about what the law indicates. And so we are concerned that might actually keep some people away.”

This will be the first election with the new law in place. Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He says it’s a welcome change.

“There is a serious problem with voter fraud across our country. Just recently it was discovered that over 160 people had voted both in Maryland and Virginia in the last election. Voted in both states, in violation of the law.”

Those cases are still under investigation, but Goodlatte says the new law will help instill public trust in the system.

“I think this will be a great thing in building the public’s trust in our election laws, which are really vitally important. Voting is one of the most important things one can do to protect our representative democracy.”

Voters who don’t have a proper ID on Election Day can fill out a provisional ballot. The state is also issuing free voter IDs to people who can prove their eligibility to their local registrar. That’s why Garren Shipley, communications director for the Republican Party for Virginia, says Democrats are making much ado about nothing.

“The burden here is so minimal in exchange for the certainty that comes with knowing that the person who shows up at the pole is who they say they are. There are instances of voter fraud out there and each one of those is a serious crime. Every vote that’s cast fraudulently disenfranchises someone’s vote who was cast legally.”

Still, Dempsey of the Democratic Party, says any additional barrier to voting is antithetical to the Constitutional guarantee of the right to vote.

“This law is very unnecessary and it is very unfortunate. It just presents one more hurdle for folks to vote. What we are advocating is accessibility to the polls and we do not feel that this does anything to make voting any easier of a process.”

The election is now less than a month away and while candidates are criss-crossing the state making their pitches to voters, their campaign staffs are making another appeal to voters: check that you have the right form of ID in hand before heading to a voting booth on November 4.