Legislation in the Virginia Senate requiring photo identification to vote is coming under fire as a move to disenfranchise African-Americans, the poor and elderly.
The Republican-sponsored bill requires a driver’s license or other photo identification in order to vote in state and federal elections. Those with financial need could obtain a state-issued ID for free.
Republicans defended the ID as a necessary way to prevent election fraud and noted that anyone can get one at no cost.
“We require a driver’s license with a photo to drive, and you have to actually pay for that. So it makes sense to require an identification with a photo to vote, especially when you can get one for free,” said state Senate Majority Leader Gerry Young, a Republican. “Ensuring that voters are who they say they are is just common sense.”
Democrats called the measure a poll tax and a throwback to Jim Crow.
“Requiring people to have a photo identification is not unlike paying a tax in order to vote,” Minority Leader Eleanor Washington, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Not everyone has a driver’s license, and having to go to an election office to get an ID is an extremely burdensome and intolerable experience.”
Despite the state-issued identification being free to those who need it, Washington maintained that actually obtaining it would prove a burden.
“Leaving your house to go somewhere to do something, including getting an ID, is so out of the ordinary and uncommon that it poses an unconscionable burden,” she said. “This is the same thing, the exact same thing, as Jim Crow.”
Republicans scoffed at the criticism, noting that people have to go to polling places in order to vote anyway.
“You have to physically move your body down to a polling site on Election Day to vote, let alone to obtain a driver’s license and other government documents that people need in their ordinary lives,” said Young. “So is this really the same thing as a literacy test?”
Following Senator Washington’s lead, many voting rights activists are arguing that government should make it even easier for everyone to vote.
“Having to go to a building to get your picture taken is oppressive enough, but so is having to go to a polling site to vote,” said Randy Williams of the Virginia Coalition for Voting. “We need to make voting as effortless, thoughtless, and mindless as possible.”
Williams has proposed that election officials visit residents at their homes, rather than forcing voters to go through the trouble of visiting the voting booth. But he expressed concern that even this would still obligate people to actually do something of their own volition in order to vote, which he called unacceptable.
“Even in this scenario, a voter would still have to push a button or write a name on a ballot, so perhaps we could have voice votes and let officials record voters’ choices,” he said. “But then, that would still require speaking and associated cognitive functioning, and we might as well just repeal voting rights and freedom altogether if we’re going to do that.”