By: Melissa Ryan
In 2013, Republican majorities in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly enacted a “voter ID law” that significantly restricts accepted forms of identification that voters must present before casting a ballot on Election Day. Now, officers at the election booths will require voters to present one of the following forms of photo identification: (1) a valid Virginia driver’s license; (2) a valid United States passport; (3) any photo identification issued by the Commonwealth, one of its political subdivisions, or the United States; (4) a valid student identification card containing a photograph of the voter and issued by any institution of higher education located in the Commonwealth; or (5) a valid employee identification card containing a photograph of the voter and issued by an employer of the voter in the ordinary course of the employer’s business. Any voter that is unable to present an acceptable form of photo identification at the polls will be offered a provisional ballot, but the voter must deliver a copy of a proper form of identification to the electoral board by noon of the third day after the election. Provisional voters may submit copies by fax, e-mail, in-person submission, timely United States Postal Service, or commercial mail delivery.
Opponents of the voter ID law fear the new restrictions will effectively disenfranchise minorities, young people, and people in poverty in Virginia. As many Virginia natives are aware, the victory of the United States’ forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, highlighted a significant shift in Virginia’s political climate. In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat to conquer the state of Virginia in a presidential election since 1964. Obama again carried Virginia when he was re-elected in 2012. His victory was attributable—in part—to substantial increases in voter turnout among African-American, Latino, and young voters. Opponents of the voter ID law contend that the General Assembly enacted the law in order “to stall, if not reverse, the growing success of the Democratic Party in Virginia . . . .”
Filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on June 11, 2015, Lee v. Virginia Board of Elections seeks to address several issues, including Virginia’s recent voter identification law and its alleged impact on voter suppression. The plaintiffs will be challenging the voter ID law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as well as the First, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments.
The complaint filed in Lee readily identifies three plaintiffs responsible for bringing the case: (1) Barbara H. Lee (“Lee”); (2) Gonzalo J. Aida Brescia (“Aida”); and (3) the Democratic Party of Virginia (“VDP”). Lee is an African American woman who identifies with the Democratic Party and has been registered to vote in Virginia since 1971. Lee is heavily involved in the political arena; she has participated in volunteer campaign work, conducts voter-education, and assists with the get-out-the-vote (“GOTV”) efforts. Aida is a 29-year-old Latino resident who became a United States citizen in 2008. He identifies with the Democratic Party and is currently registered to vote in Virginia. Aida, too, is active in the political realm. For example, Aida has served on the board of the Virginia Young Democrats; he has assisted with voter registration, voter-education, and GOTV efforts; and serves on the Virginia Latino Advisory Board. Both Lee and Aida believe the recent 2013 voter ID law will disproportionately stifle the Democratic vote and will harm future efforts to elect Democratic candidates.
The defendants in this case—various members of the Virginia State Board of Elections (“VSBE”)—believe this case should be dismissed outright for three reasons: (1) each cause of action presented by the plaintiffs fail to state a claim for which relief can be granted; (2) none of the plaintiffs have standing to bring the challenge; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims are speculative, unripe, and vague. According to the VSBE, plaintiffs Lee and Aida are unable to show the voter ID law personally burdens them. The VSBE further asserts that the VDP has not identified a single eligible voter that is burdened by the law.
The court will have to carefully weigh the state interests of imposing a photo ID requirement with the severity of its burden on voting. Virginia surely has an interest in maintaining and promoting the integrity of its electoral system and preventing voter fraud. However, it is undeniable that the voter photo ID law will only burden some—likely minorities, those living in poverty, and the homeless. In light of Virginia’s history of discrimination and its ongoing effects, the controversy surrounding the new voter ID law reinvigorates the notion that, “[n]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live.”