Accusations of voter suppression and racism flew on the West Virginia House of Delegates floor on Friday, as lawmakers debated and eventually passed a controversial bill requiring some voters to show photo identification at the polls.
By a vote of 64 to 34, West Virginia’s Republican-controlled House passed a bill which would require voters to show one of several types of ID cards before voting. The bill is not as strict as some other states’ voter ID laws, as it allows people to vote on provisional ballots if they forget or don’t have ID. Voters could also have a poll worker or friend sign an affidavit for them, vouching that they are who they say they are.
But those caveats weren’t enough for some of West Virginia’s Democratic lawmakers, who claimed the bill was little more than an effort to suppress participation from elderly and minority voters.
“This bill is taking a a very ugly page out of the ALEC playbook,” said Del. Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha), referring to the free-market lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Before 2012, ALEC was a leader in pushing state voter ID bills.
“Groups like ALEC and the Koch brothers run bills like this, in my opinion, to suppress minority votes in many states,” Pushkin said.
Pushkin wasn’t alone in his sentiment. Del. Mike Caputo (D-Marion) spent considerable time pushing bill sponsor Patrick Lane (R-Kanawha) to say whether there have ever been any cases of voter fraud in West Virginia that would be solved by the bill. He noted that Voter ID laws only prevent “voter impersonation” — someone pretending to be someone else — and that there have been no reported cases of voter impersonation in West Virginia since 2000.
Lane was also forced to admit that was true — that there had been no recent cases of voter fraud in the state.
“To many knowledge, no one has been convinced of this type of voter fraud in West Virginia,” Lane said. However, Lane also argued that the state was “ripe for that type of fraud” because currently, the only way to tell if someone is impersonating someone else at the polls is if their signature doesn’t match the signature on file.
Lane also argued that people need a photo ID to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. “Voting is equally important,” he said.
“I don’t think those are fundamental rights, but that’s fine,” Caputo countered.
Many of the back-and-forths during Friday’s floor vote had to do with how the voter ID bill would impact elderly people — people who may not have an unexpired driver’s license or other photo identification card. Bill supporters countered that social security cards and Medicare cards would be acceptable forms of ID under the law, and that most senior citizens have those things. And if they don’t, supporters said, they can fill out a provisional ballot.
Del. Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson), however, said the provisional ballot was problematic. For one, he said, those ballots take a long time to fill out, and could increase wait times. “Every time that you have to vote a provisional ballot, it’s going to take about 15 minutes, and everybody in line behind that person is going to have to wait,” Skinner said. “People are going to get discouraged from being in line and they will leave the line.”
In addition, Skinner said a provisional ballot is “second-tier” — a vote that just isn’t as good as a regular vote, because it takes longer to be counted, if it’s counted as all.
“Some of us will have a first-class vote, and others are going to have a second-tier, provisional vote,” Skinner said. “And who are the people who are going to have a second-tier vote, a back of the bus vote? Senior citizens.”
“This is class-A voter suppression, and it’s wrong,” he added.
Despite that sometimes fierce pushback, the bill passed by nearly a two to one margin. If it heads to the Senate, it will also likely pass, as West Virginia’s Senate has a Republican majority, and voter ID is generally a Republican-led issue. West Virginia’s governor is a Democrat, but as activists noted to ThinkProgress last week, only a majority in both the state’s House and Senate is required to override a governor’s veto.
If the bill becomes law, West Virginia would be the 34th state with a voter ID provision in effect. Thirty-six states have actually passed laws requiring voters to show some form of ID at the polls, but three of those are on hold, pending court challenges. Multiple provisions of voter ID laws across the country have been struck down by courts which note that the laws disenfranchise minority voters.