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Is Virginia's voter photo ID law discriminatory? Federal court hears case.

Defenders of the 2013 statute say it prevents voter fraud while Democrats claim it weakens their party's base. 

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    Chief inspector Jeanne Thieme inspects a voter's identification card at the Olbrich Gardens polling location in Madison, Wis., Tuesday.
    Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
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The lawsuit against a Virginia statute that requires voters to show photo identification will go on trial Monday in federal court.

While defenders of the 2013 Virginia law say that it is designed to prevent voter fraud, Democrats and other activists say the Virginia Board of Elections is discriminating against poor, minority, and younger voters because they are less likely to have driver’s licenses or passports – and are more likely to vote Democrat.

Citing state election records, the lawsuit says about 197,000 registered voters in Virginia did not have a driver's license, as of October 2014. By May 2015, only 4,117 out of the nearly 200,000 who would be affected by the voter ID law had obtained the free voter photo ID cards issued by the state Elections Department.

The trial, which will take place in US district court in Richmond, Va., is the latest in a string of cases relating to voter identification laws. Just last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sued officials in Kansas, over a similar measure that requires proof of citizenship when people register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles. North Carolina’s voter ID law is also being challenged.

The plaintiffs in the Virginia lawsuit consist of the Democratic Party of Virginia and two party activists. They are calling on Judge Henry Hudson to strike down the law.

According to their lawyers, the photo ID measure passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature was intended to "to stall, if not reverse, the growing success of the Democratic Party in Virginia."

President Obama was the first Democrat to win the majority of Virginia in more than 40 years during his first election in 2008. He carried the state again four years later. Experts say his surprising success in such a Republican state was in part due to voter turnout among black and Latino voters.

The lawsuit also includes requests that the judge revoke a state requirement that only allows restored voting rights to felons on an individual basis, as well as approval of an additional measure to help reduce waiting times at the polls.

But the State Board of Elections maintains that the photo IDs will neither disenfranchise voters nor reduce turnout. They "deny that acquiring the identification required by the statute is an unreasonable or arbitrary burden," in a court filing.

Last year, the US Supreme Court effectively upheld the constitutionality of voter ID laws by declining to hear a challenge to a Wisconsin law, as The Christian Science Monitor's Warren Richey reported at the time:

Currently, 31 states ask would-be voters to present some form of identification before being permitted to cast a ballot. Of those, seven states maintain a strict photo ID requirement. They are Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia....

The issue of voter ID has divided Republicans and Democrats. Most photo ID statutes have been passed by Republican-majority legislatures claiming an attempt to fight voter fraud.

Democrats counter that voter impersonation fraud is as rare as being struck by lightning. They say the real reason Republicans pass voter ID laws is to disenfranchise poor and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic. Such voters are less likely to possess the required form of ID and face significantly higher burdens while trying to obtain it.

However Judge Hudson rules in this case, the parties involved could seek a further appeal from the Supreme Court. But the death of Justice Anton Scalia earlier this month has left the Court firmly split along ideological lines and unlikely to come to a majority opinion in this case.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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