West Virginia’s secretary of state said she is gearing up to fight legislation that she claims would make it harder for some citizens to vote.
On Monday, Tennant appeared at a press conference with newly elected Delegate Stephen Skinner as well as officials from the ACLU, AFL-CIO, AARP and the League of Women Voters and vowed to push back against bills introduced in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate that would require voters to show photo identification when voting.
Citing an analysis done by Sean O’Leary for the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy that projects the costs of the bill could exceed $5.3 million over five years, Tennant said these bills would mean “more requirements, more costs, and more headaches.”
The costs are calculated based on the fact that the state would no longer be able to charge for identification, since this would amount to an illegal poll tax if identification was required in order to vote.
Skinner said the proposal is an intentional effort to reduce the turnout of certain sectors of the population.
“When I was campaigning in Jefferson County, the number one complaint I heard from seniors – particularly senior women – was how hard it was to get a driver’s license,” he said. “This voter suppression bill absolutely targets older women and would prevent them from being able to vote. Now we (would) have the bureaucracy of the (Department of Motor Vehicles) being involved in whether or not you should have the right to vote. This is absolutely wrong.”
Skinner said the bill could disenfranchise 100,000 voters in West Virginia.
“That’s the number of people who have been projected to have trouble voting if they have to get a driver’s license. And those are primarily older folks and students,” he said.
“Too many people have shed too much blood for us to put up barriers to democracy.”
Skinner said the proposals are an intentional effort to influence the outcome of elections.
“I think the motivations are partisan. I think that there is an attempt to suppress the vote and the people whose votes would be suppressed are primarily from one political party.”
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, a Republican, who introduced voter identification legislation this year, strongly objected to the notion that the bill is intended to suppress voting.
“He’s wrong. I’ll categorically say that,” Hall said. “Parts of our state have been full of voter fraud. It’s just a way of life.”
Hall pointed to recent convictions of public officials on voter fraud charges in Lincoln County as indicative of the problems with elections fraud throughout the state. He conceded, however, that a voter identification bill would not have prevented the fraud scheme used in that case, since it involved absentee ballots.
He said the process outlined in the bill would not produce heavy burdens on major segments of the population.
“You can go get (a government I.D.) for five dollars,” Hall said. “If you don’t do that, you file a provisional ballot, and your vote will probably be counted. It’s just like when you move from one precinct to another and you are voting in the wrong precinct. It’s not an onerous thing.”
Nevertheless, Hall said that he hopes the voter identification bill will be amended so that it would not require individuals to bring drivers’ licenses to the polling place. Instead, he said he hopes to allow county clerks to build a database of photographs linked to voter registration records that would allow them to verify a voter’s identity at the polling place. He said this database could be developed over the course of a few years by taking photographs of voters when they register, and by allowing county clerks to access existing DMV records.
Hall said he hopes this method would avoid having to file a provisional ballot. The bill has not been amended to reflect the changes Hall said he would like to see made to it.
At Monday’s press conference, Brenda Green, executive director of the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, said that shifting to provisional ballots would suppress voting.
“Citizens do not trust provisional ballots,” said Green “They figure, ‘If my vote is not going to count anyway, why should I stand in line?’”
Hall admitted that there could be problems in some cases.
“There may be people around the edges, I would concede – I mean they probably would be elderly or whatever – where this could be a problem, but is that as great a problem as the other potential problem?” Hall said. “Isn’t it pretty obvious that if you resist producing an easily obtained documentation of who you are that there is a potential for widespread abuse? Maybe not the actual, but there is the potential.”
Skinner said he doesn’t buy the notion that requiring voters to show identification would solve any actual voting problems.
“Let them name one instance where there has been voter impersonation in all of West Virginia,” he said.
Hall said doing that was the job of law enforcement, not the Legislature.
Skinner, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which would review such a measure, said he thinks it is unlikely that committee would pass a voter identification bill, and that it might not even be taken up.
However, he said that delegates who favor the bill might use a procedure called a “discharge petition” to try to bring the bill directly to the House floor. That procedure would require the assent of a majority of delegates.