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Virginia's Sneaky Voter ID Raises Few Alarms

Virginia’s new voter ID law kicks in on Election Day, but you probably haven’t heard much about it. While 30 states have enacted some sort of Voter ID law, the debate has focused on those swing states, like Pennsylvania or Ohio, whose laws were most transparently designed to disenfranchise minority voters. The Virginia law, by contrast, is much less maligant. But the presidential race is closer in Virginia than any other state—the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls has Obama leading Romney by just 0.3 points. Which means that, even if Virginia’s Voter ID law impacts a relatively small number of voters, it could still have an outsized impact on the election.

“[The new law] could be a problem for some voters,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But it will only really matter if the election is extremely close, which it could be.”

Previously in Virginia, voters who did not bring proper ID to the polls could sign an affidavit swearing to their identity and then vote as normal. Under the new law—passed by Virginia’s GOP-controlled legislature after Democrats blocked a much tougher measure—voters who do not bring some form of ID will have to cast provisional ballots, with their votes only counting if they submit an approved form of ID to their election board within three days of the election.

That will be hard to precisely determine until after Nov. 6, but the election board said it reached out to all 134 localities in the state through its “Are You Election Ready?” campaign. The campaign used social media, advertisements in newspapers, TVs and bus stations, and partnerships with community organizations to inform Virginia’s nearly 5 million registered voters on the new law.  (Though the $550,000 is a miniscule fraction of the combined $86 million the presidential candidates have spent on advertising in the state.) The elections board also said it delivered new voter registration cards on time to each voter, with only an “isolated and statistically nominal” number of people reportedly not receiving them. But since only those who were expecting the card could complain about not receiving it, I went out in Virginia to gauge how much voters actually knew about the law.

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I spoke to a couple dozen registered voters in Fairfax County last week (which is by no means an exhaustive or scientific sample). Five voters said they had not received their new registration cards and a majority of the voters said they were unaware of any changes in the ID law.

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Daquan Randall, a 23 year-old from Prince William County. “But I’m still going to vote. I always do.” Harold Hampton, 69, of Fairfax County similarly said he had not heard of the new law or received his voter registration card. (Both Randall and Hampton did have at least one form of acceptable ID to bring to the polls).

“If they haven’t heard of the change, the question becomes, will they appear with any ID on the list,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior council at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s very hard to tell in a real quantitative matter.”

Those most impacted by the change in the law are the voters who previously voted by signing an affidavit. According to the state election board, over the last several Virginia elections about 0.25 percent of voters did not have proper identification and had to sign an affidavit to cast their ballot. In 2008, about 3.8 million people voted in Virginia, amounting to more than 9,000 voters who voted via affidavit.

A FEW THOUSAND votes may seem insignificant, but if the swing-state of Virginia is as close as some predict, it could make a difference. After all, Obama’s decisive victory in 2008 was largely due to the unprecedented turnout among young and minority voters—those most vulnerable to stricter ID laws. This time around, the Obama campaign has sent thousands of lawyers throughout the country to help voters deal with the new voter ID laws and worked on the ground to help educate voters on the new changes. In Virginia, the efforts are no different.

“Through voter education events, campaign rallies, neighbor to neighbor outreach, and messages from high profile supporters and community leaders, our campaign is making sure Virginia voters understand that voting is easy, and the new voter ID law only requires one form of ID,” said Marianne von Nordeck, the Virginia press secretary for the Obama campaign.  With the margins so thing and the stakes so high, such efforts could make the difference.