By Ann E. Marimow,
A federal appeals court on Thursday will consider whether Virginia’s election law requiring photo identification for in-person voting denies minorities an equal opportunity to cast ballots in the key presidential-election state.
The challenge to Virginia’s voting rules at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit is one of a series of election-law cases throughout the country. Judges have repeatedly sided with opponents in recent months, overturning or weakening restrictive voting laws.
Attorneys defending Virginia’s law say the state’s identification requirements are far more flexible than those passed in other states, including a North Carolina law that the 4th Circuit recently struck down as unconstitutional.
“Virginia is not Texas or North Carolina or, for that matter, Indiana. Virginia adopted one of the nation’s’ most lenient photo-ID laws,” according to lawyers for the State Board of Elections, led by Mark F. “Thor” Hearne II.
A panel of three judges at the Richmond-based court is set to hear the arguments.
In 2012, Virginia lawmakers passed new election rules that required voters to present identification — with or without a photo. The state mailed voter-registration cards, that could be used to cast ballots , to all registered voters.
Ten months later, the Republican-controlled legislature approved a more restrictive measure requiring photo identification that opponents say was designed to discriminate against black and Latino voters, who are less likely than white voters to have the required identification.
There was no indication that there was any problem with the previous law, said attorney Bruce V. Spiva, who will argue on Thursday for the state Democratic Party. Requiring photo ID, is “ just a hoop that someone has to jump through, and it results in people being disenfranchised,” Spiva said.
State lawmakers said the photo-ID measures are a safeguard against fraud and were intended to prevent mistakes and confusion.
A federal judge in May upheld the Virginia law, finding that the state had “provided all of its citizens with an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process” and that the voting rules are constitutional and do not violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
Virginia’s law allows for alternatives to driver’s licenses and passports, including presenting private- and government-employer IDs and student IDs from public and private colleges. A voter without the required identification can obtain a free voter identification card from a local election office without having to provide a supporting document such as a birth certificate.
Opponents say in their court filing that an estimated 230,000 residents do not possess one of the required forms of identification and are not likely to have the time or transportation means to visit a registrar’s office.
Much of supporters’ arguments to the 4th Circuit centers on how Virginia’s law — in substance and timing — is different from the package of election rules passed in North Carolina that a three-judge panel from the same court struck down in July.
The court found that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature intentionally enacted voting restrictions to stop the growing political power of African American voters, who turned out in record numbers for President Obama.
In the 4th Circuit opinion, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said the provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
Unlike North Carolina’s voting rules, Virginia’s law was passed before the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. That decision freed certain states that had a history of discrimination from seeking federal approval before changing their voting rules.
There is no evidence, according to lawyers for the Virginia state elections board, that any lawmakers knew or believed that the photo-ID measure “would have a racially disparate impact or that there was a racial disparity in the possession of qualifying IDs.”
Spiva, the Democratic Party attorney, said the requirement still serves as a deterrent.
“When you have a strict photo-ID law, a lot of people just don’t go to the polls because they don’t have or think they don’t have the required ID,” he said. “That’s going to be a real problem in Virginia.”