Virginia’s strict voter ID law has been ruled constitutional by a federal judge, who said that lawmakers had no “discriminatory intent” toward minorities, young people, or the elderly when they crafted the legislation.
District Judge Henry E. Hudson issued his decision on Thursday following a week-long trial in March, where several Virginians testified about how the law requiring photo ID at the polls made it harder for them to vote.
Hudson wrote that while Virginia does have “an unfortunate history of racial discrimination,” the state’s voter ID law appears to impact all people equally, and is therefore non-discriminatory. He also said the state has implemented “a progressive pattern of post-Voting Rights Act remediation,” meaning the state has made it easier for minorities to vote after a federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting was passed in 1965.
“The extensive testimonial and documentary evidence offered in this case has failed to reveal by a preponderance of the evidence that the Virginia General Assembly…enacted the Virginia photo identification requirement with the intent to suppress minority and young voters,” Hudson wrote. “Virginia has provided all of its citizens with an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process.”
Virginia’s strict voter ID law, passed in 2013, requires all in-person voters to show a valid, unexpired photo identification at the polls. But key to the judge’s decision to uphold the law was a provision allowing residents who lack IDs to obtain them for free without having to provide a birth certificate.
Tram Nguyen with the organization Virginia New Majority said she and other voting rights advocates found a silver lining in this aspect of the decision. “Our hope is that legislators will think twice about any attempt to make it harder to get a free photo ID or to put more restrictive ID requirements in place,” she said.
As for the judge’s contention that there is no proof the law has caused widespread harm to voters, Nguyen said that proof could surface this November.
“This election cycle is going to be the first real test of the law’s effect on voters of color, seniors, etc,” she said. “It’s only been used so far in elections with low turnout, where voters are more likely to have some form of ID. This year, with the rising interest in the election, with new voters showing up to the polls who have never voted before, with a surge in immigrants becoming citizens in order to vote, we’re going to see the impact we haven’t seen in other years.”
The lawsuit, filed by the Democratic Party of Virginia and two voters, claimed that Virginia Republicans only passed the law to prevent African American, Latino, and poor people from coming out to vote. Those groups are more likely to be disenfranchised by voter ID laws.
During the sometimes emotional trial, several witness said the law has already made it more difficult to vote. At one point, 69-year-old black woman Josephine Okiakpe wept as she recalled struggling to produce sufficient identification when she went to vote in 2014.
Before Virginia’s general election in 2014, the state board of elections admitted that nearly 1 in 25 voters were potentially disenfranchised by the law.
The ruling comes less than a month after Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered one of the most progressive voting rights changes in the state’s history: restoring full voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-offenders who had been disenfranchised. For the past month, organizers like Richmond native Karen Fountain have been racing to register as many of these people as possible so they are able to vote in the fall. Fountain told ThinkProgress she sees today’s ruling as a backlash to this restoration of rights.
“Those conservatives see the ex-felons getting registered, and they think, ‘Just in case a lot of them don’t have a photo ID, we know how to stop them from voting,’” she said. “That’s what it’s saying to me.”
Fountain vowed to start informing everyone she registers that they can obtain a free ID from the Department of Elections.
Thursday’s decision in its entirety can be read here: