RICHMOND — Virginia has become the latest GOP-led state to approve legislation that would ask voters to present a photo ID to cast a ballot.
The measure, passed by the General Assembly last month and signed into law by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Monday, could be in place for the 2014 elections. Virginia now joins Republican-controlled states including Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee and Louisiana that have approved similar measures.
The change is subject to approval by the Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which covers nine states with a history of discriminatory voting practices.
“He believes that proving that you are a citizen and registered voter by photo ID is a reasonable effort to protect the sanctity of our democratic process,” McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said in a statement.
While supporters said such measures are needed to protect the integrity of the vote, critics said the laws are a partisan effort to suppress turnout among the poor, elderly and minorities — many of whom tend to vote Democratic.
“Governor McDonnell delivered a major setback to Virginia voters,” said Lauren Harmon, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “Instead of taking this opportunity to veto the photo ID bill that could disenfranchise thousands of Virginians, including seniors, he chose to fall in lockstep with extreme elements of his party . . . who want to affect the outcome of future elections by making it harder for some Virginians to vote.”
McDonnell’s decision was among several made before Monday’s midnight deadline to amend or veto bills from the legislative session that ended Feb. 23. The governor also proposed changes to transportation overhaul legislation in response to concerns from citizens and the business community — and in hopes of averting a legal challenge. And he tweaked language to clarify what would constitute Medicaid reform before the state expands the program under the new federal health care law.
The General Assembly will consider McDonnell’s proposed changes when it reconvenes April 3.
On the issue of photo ID, the move appears to represent a change of heart for the governor, who during the session had signaled his support for voting regulations adopted last year.
McDonnell sought last year to blunt criticism that the 2012 voter ID law — which did not require a photograph — disenfranchised some voters. He issued an executive order that election officials mail out new voter ID cards to registered voters.
The governor Tuesday explained why he supported the photo ID bill after he had said the current rules had worked well.
“I said there was good compliance with the bill last year,” McDonnell said during an interview with WTOP (103.5 FM). “That doesn’t mean it is sufficient scrutiny to be sure that when a voter shows up with an ID that does not have his or her picture, that that is sufficient to be able to determine whether or not it is that voter.”
McDonnell also issued an executive order directing the State Board of Elections to implement a plan to educate the public about the changes. The board also would help people lacking appropriate photo identification to obtain free IDs before the 2014 elections, when the measure would take effect if cleared by the Justice Department.
The General Assembly passed the legislation this session over the objection of Democrats, who called the measure an unnecessary burden on voters. McDonnell pushed back on that idea Tuesday.
“I thought the bill did properly balance the ballot security and honest election requirement with any civil liberty or impediment-to-voting concerns,” McDonnell said during his radio interview. “And the fact that there’s a free ID, just like we had last year. And we’re going to have a sustained voter education campaign. I think that will be implemented just fine.”
The governor also touted his own record as a voting rights advocate, pointing out that he has restored the rights of more ex-felons than any of his predecessors. He pushed for the automatic restoration of those rights during the legislative session, but the idea failed to advance.
Transportation was the marquee issue for the term-limited McDonnell, who urged action in his final session on an issue that has long stymied the state.
Key to the legislation’s passage was additional funding for two of the commonwealth’s most congested areas, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. But on Friday, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) raised concerns about the constitutionality of the regional funding proposals.
On Tuesday, administration officials said the proposed changes should allow the bill to “move forward without any sort of jeopardy from any sort of legal challenges” and that the administration worked closely with the attorney general in crafting them.