A voter identification bill going through the state Legislature would limit the types of government-issued photo identification voters could present at the polls.
If passed, voters would be required to show a valid driver’s license, a West Virginia identification card, a U.S. passport or passport card, an employee photo identification card issued by a government agency, or a military photo ID.
The bill would eliminate sections of an existing voter ID law passed last year, scheduled to take effect in 2018. The law allows voters to also use high school or college identification cards, birth certificates, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families identification cards, utility bills, bank cards and other forms of ID.
Republicans believe the bill would combat in-person voter fraud.
A comprehensive study on voter fraud completed by Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola University, found 31 cases of documented, in-person voter fraud completed between 2000 and 2014. More than a billion ballots were cast during that time. None of the cases mentioned in Levitt’s study occurred in West Virginia.
Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, is the lead sponsor of the bill.
She said she’s heard personal anecdotes of fraud as a legislator. While those cases aren’t prosecuted, she said they still occur.
“Without photo identification, it’s hard to stop fraud, and it’s also nearly impossible to prove it took place,” Blair said.
Five of HB 2781’s nine sponsors were co-sponsors for last year’s bill: Blair, Eric Householder, R-Berkeley; George Ambler, R-Greenbrier; Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison; and William Anderson, R-Wood.
Blair said she supports fewer forms of ID because it would make the voting process less confusing for voters. That’s part of the reason the bill was modeled after similar laws in other states.
But some democratic lawmakers and activists say the law is discriminatory and would prevent poor, minority and elderly voters from casting ballots. Some even believe the bill may violate the Voting Rights Act.
Blair said critics’ concerns are misguided.
“I want to protect minority and low-income voters by ensuring their votes aren’t canceled out by illegitimate ones,” Blair said.
Voter ID laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and North Dakota were struck down last year in separate court cases. All of the judges who tried the cases agreed — each state’s law had discriminatory impacts on voters in their states.
Jennifer Clark, an attorney for the Brennan Center who worked heavily on the Texas case, said the bill is stricter than many in other states, but she believes it wouldn’t violate the Voting Rights Act if enacted.
The Brennan Center is a nonpartisan law and policy institute based at New York University. They oppose voter ID laws.
Unlike the overturned laws in other states, the bill would allow voters to cast provisional ballots. In West Virginia, 3,285 provisional ballots were reported in the 2016 general election, according to county-by-county data from the secretary of state’s office. About 70 percent of those ballots were counted.
Clark said if the bill becomes law, opponents would have to prove it provides significant barriers to voters to get it overturned. While the Voting Rights Act very clearly protects minority voters, it’s more difficult to prove the bill discriminates against poor or elderly voters.
The bill also eliminates automatic voter registration, which was also passed last year. Clark said the Brennan Center’s research has found automatic voter registration encourages voting on both sides of the aisle. In Oregon 80 percent of registered voters participated in the 2016 general election, according to Oregon’s secretary of state office.
Automatic voter registration received strong bipartisan support in the Legislature last year.
“To basically cut it off at the knees before it would even happen would be a huge mistake,” Clark said.
Mac Warner, West Virginia’s secretary of state, denounced open voter registration while campaigning for the position, calling it an effort by billionaire George Soros to register as many people as possible, including “citizens, non-citizens and felons.”
Atiba Ali, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law and voting rights expert, said the bill is strict compared to others nationwide. He believes the bill, if passed, would have an extremely detrimental impact on the state.
“They’re enacting these policies rather than ensuring the right to vote to all citizens regardless of party or identity,” Ali said.
Ali said legislators pursuing these bills struggle to understand in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent.
“If the rules are being designed to find a solution to a problem, fine.” Ali said. “But this shows the legislators aren’t interested in their constituencies. They’re more on board with catching up to Republican legislatures in other states.”
Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said even though the bill requires free IDs to be given for voting purposes, there are still costs to getting an ID.
Every Division of Motor Vehicles office in the state, except for the Kanawha City office and the Martinsburg office, is open from 8:30 a.m to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday only. O’Leary said for some people to go get an ID, they’d have to take a day off work and find a ride or take public transportation to the office. He said wages those voters would lose serve as a pseudo-poll tax.
The voter ID bill comes after President Donald Trump claimed in January millions of unsubstantiated cases of voter fraud cost him the popular vote in November’s presidential election. While Trump has offered no proof of the fraud, according to a January Poltico/Morning Consult poll, one-in-four voters believe his claims.
Similar voter ID proposals have been filed in Arkansas, Texas, Nebraska and Iowa this year.
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