Justice

Virginians Describe How The State Has Made It Harder For Them To Vote

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

In Fairfax County, Virginia, an election officer who checks voter identification waits for a supervisor to clarify an ID problem, at the Washington Mill Elementary School near Mount Vernon, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — When Karen Stallings decided to move her blind, 84-year-old father from Arizona into her home in Virginia, she expected many new challenges in her life. She did not expect voting to be one of them.

And yet, a few months before election day rolled around, she realized her father’s drivers license was out-of-state and expired. And under Virginia’s strict voter ID law, every voter needs an acceptable, unexpired form of photo identification to cast a regular ballot. So in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, Stallings drove her father to the DMV to register to vote and get a photo ID card.

What followed was a series of DMV-related calamities that eventually saw her father in the hospital. Stallings described her experience on Tuesday in front of a Virginia federal judge, who is presiding over a heated trial over the state’s voter ID law. The Democratic Party of Virginia claims the law deliberately suppresses voting by minorities, young people, and the elderly.

“Dad has vertigo, so he can’t sit or stand very long,” Stallings explained. There were only two people ahead of her at the DMV, she said, but it took three hours before someone was able to help them. She informed workers of her dad’s condition — people even offered to switch tickets with her. But they needed a specific window, and a specific person to get the new ID. No one could help, so they waited.

“By the time we finally got him up to the window, he was so sick, he fell,” Stallings said. “He was in the hospital the next day.”

Weeks later, Stallings was informed she’d be able to register her father to vote online, using his passport and a bank statement delivered to her house for proof of address. He eventually was able to vote using an absentee ballot. So all was well in the end — but the hoops she had to jump through made her question the effectiveness of Virginia’s voter ID law, which passed despite no evidence of voter impersonation in the state.

On Monday and Tuesday, multiple witnesses took the stand to describe obstacles they faced while trying to vote or obtain identification. While almost everyone who testified was eventually able to vote via provisional or absentee ballots, many said the experiences were frustrating and embarrassing — enough to turn them off to the voting process altogether.

That was exactly the case for Josephine Okiakpe. On Monday, the 69-year-old black woman wept as she recalled struggling to produce sufficient identification when she went to vote in 2014. She said she had several forms of identification that she thought would be sufficient, but were not under the state’s law. Okiakpe, who grew up in a segregated Virginia town, said people laughed at her as she went through her cards. She eventually was able to vote on a provisional ballot.

Barbara Lee, a 67-year-old black woman from Stauton, Virginia, also grew up in segregation. It is the reason why today, she said, she helps people register to vote through her position on the Stauton Democratic Committee. She has also been a poll worker since the 1980s, she said.

Since the state’s strict voter ID law passed, however, Lee said the low-income people she works with have been having trouble getting to the state Registrar’s office during business hours.

“These are people who work at McDonald’s. These are people who work at motels. These are people who work at dry cleaners. … people with nine-to-five jobs” Lee said. “And the Registrar is only open from nine to five.”

“It used to be voting was a pleasure,” she continued. “Now it’s a hinderance for a lot of us.”

Attorneys for the defense — the Virginia State Board of Elections — countered many of these stories by pointing out that eventually, despite hardships, people were always able to cast some sort of ballot if they wanted to.

Witness Abe Barranca, for example, was denied a regular ballot in 2014 when he presented only his unexpired New York state driver’s license and a piece of mail with his new Virginia residence. He was, however, given a provisional ballot. That ballot was not counted, but only because Barranca did not fax his proper identification over within the next few days. Barranca said he was busy and forgot; attorneys for the defense implied that that was on him.

Barranca acknowledged he could have acted more quickly, but wondered why his identification wasn’t enough.

“[The experience] left me vexed and frustrated,” he said. “It was an extra step to voting that I had never experienced before.”

Monday and Tuesday were just the first two days of what is expected to be a week-long trial over Virginia’s voter ID law, and attorneys for the plaintiffs say they will call 40 witnesses to support their case. Two dozen of those witnesses will testify that they have been personally adversely affected by the law.