By Alex Wiggins and Amir Vera
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Several hundred citizens joined Democratic officials and civil rights leaders at the Capitol on Tuesday to rally against bills they say would suppress the voting rights of minorities, elderly people and low-income Virginians.
The bills would require Virginia residents to present identification, such as a birth certificate or driver’s license, before voting. Some Democrats charge that Republicans are pushing for the changes to target Virginians who likely would vote Democratic.
“We know that these voter suppression activities are designed with a strategic purpose in mind,” said Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. “This is a systemic approach to suppressing the voting power of those who turned Virginia blue in 2008,” when the state supported Barack Obama for president.
The rally involved several political organizations, including the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate. They were joined by groups such as the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the Sierra Club and the AARP, the major advocacy group for older Americans.
Also at the protest were U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Newport News and civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis, who was an assistant to the Rev. Martin Luther King and served as head of the NAACP.
Chavis said the proposals evoke Jim Crow days, when whites used poll taxes and other intimidation to prevent blacks from voting.
“This is the New South,” he told the crowd. “Some people over there in the [General Assembly] building – that’s the Old South.”
Demonstrators surrounded the Bell Tower at the southwest corner of Capitol Square at 10 a.m. They wore stickers that read “Protect Our Vote! We Can’t Afford To Go Backwards” and hoisted signs. Prayer and song preceded and followed several speakers.
“Since 1965, we have made every effort to expand the right to vote, to make it easier to vote. But now we’re seeing people turn back the clock,” said Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke. “They say there’s widespread voter fraud. Where is the evidence? It does not exist.”
Republicans say that the proposals would guard against voter fraud. Under current law, someone without a voter registration card or other identification can vote by signing an affidavit that “he is the named registered voter who he claims to be.”
The rally did not sway the House of Delegates. On Wednesday, delegates voted 69-30 in favor of House Bill 9, which says that voters who can’t show identification must cast a “provisional ballot”; the provisional ballot would be counted after the election if officials verify the voter’s identity.
“The legislation debated today will cause confusion at the polls, deter lawful voters from voting, and create chaos for our already stressed election officials,” said Delegate Mark Sickles of Franconia, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “A clear and convincing reason why these bills are needed has yet to be articulated in committee or on the floor.”
However, Delegate David Albo, R-Fairfax, said critics of HB 9 are making false claims about the bill.
“Most people who are against it are saying it denies people the right to vote. They need to read the bill – it does not deny anyone the right to vote,” Albo said. “If they don’t have an ID, they vote a provisional ballot. All provisional ballots are counted as long as it is not determined that the vote is fraudulent. So, everyone’s vote still gets counted.”
Democrats also criticized Senate Bill 1, which would eliminate the voter registration card from the list of acceptable forms of identification that Virginians can show to prove they are registered voters.
Under SB 1, a voter would have to show a Social Security card, a driver’s license, a government identification card or an employee ID card with a photo – or else cast a provisional ballot.
Opponents say SB 1 would discourage many people from voting. They said, for example, that elderly Virginians may not have a birth certificate or driver’s license.
“It undermines the very foundation of our democracy, the right to vote,” said Brian Moran, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy. We should be encouraging and expanding the opportunities to engage in our democracy through the vote – not suppressing, not limiting, not being a country of exclusion, but rather of inclusion.”
However, Sen. Steve Martin, R-Chesterfield, who is sponsoring SB 1, said the rally speakers were “nowhere close to correct.”
“You might want to make sure you look at the actual bill and see the expansions of opportunities. You do not need a photo ID. That’s not a requirement. It’s nothing at all like what has been represented, and it’s probably going to fair very well on the floor of the Senate,” Martin said.
Many Republicans say the bills are intended to prevent voter fraud, but Democrats say voter fraud hasn’t been a problem in Virginia.
By supporting such bills as HB 9 and SB 1, legislators are sending a message to the people, said Tram Nguyen, associate director of Virginia New Majority, which advocates for minorities, women and “progressive people” in general.
“That message is that while we don’t have enough money in our state budget to fund programs that we so desperately need – like education, our health safety and public safety – they’re willing to spend millions of our taxpayer dollars to fix a program that doesn’t exist,” Nguyen said.
One attendee at the rally – Chuck Hawkins of Manquin, a town in King William County – said Republicans want to suppress voter turnout because a higher turnout favors Democrats. “It’s a way to keep people from coming to the polls that would otherwise exercise their right.”
Mayor Jones vowed that Democrats would not let that happen.
“We’re not going to stand by quietly and allow these things to happen without bringing public attention to them,” he said.
“It’s my right to vote. I will not have to give my birth certificate. I will not have to show my driver’s license. All I ought to do is show up.”
How They Voted
Here is how the House of Delegates voted Wednesday on “HB 9 Voting procedures; voter identification requirements, provisional ballots.” This vote represented final approval of the bill by the House.
Floor: 02/01/12 House: VOTE: PASSAGE (69-Y 30-N)
YEAS–Albo, Anderson, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Byron, Cline, Cole, Comstock, Cosgrove, Cox, J.A., Cox, M.K., Crockett-Stark, Dudenhefer, Edmunds, Fariss, Farrell, Garrett, Gilbert, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Helsel, Hodges, Hugo, Iaquinto, Ingram, Joannou, Johnson, Jones, Kilgore, Knight, Landes, LeMunyon, Lingamfelter, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Massie, May, Merricks, Miller, Minchew, Morefield, Morris, O’Bannon, O’Quinn, Orrock, Peace, Pogge, Poindexter, Purkey, Putney, Ramadan, Ransone, Robinson, Rush, Rust, Scott, E.T., Sherwood, Stolle, Tata, Villanueva, Ware, R.L., Watson, Webert, Wilt, Wright, Yancey, Mr. Speaker–69.
NAYS–Alexander, BaCote, Brink, Bulova, Carr, Dance, Englin, Filler-Corn, Herring, Hope, Howell, A.T., James, Keam, Kory, Lewis, Lopez, McClellan, McQuinn, Morrissey, Plum, Sickles, Spruill, Surovell, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Ward, Ware, O., Watts, Yost–30.
NOT VOTING–Scott, J.M.–1.
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