RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Take two deadlocked races in a battleground state that Republicans and Democrats alike say will play a huge role in who wins the White House and controls the U.S. Senate.
Blend in a new voter identification law and the possibility of thousands of additional provisional ballots that won’t be counted for days.
Whip it to a froth with unprecedented political cash supporting get-out-the-vote efforts and eleventh-hour dirty tricks, and there’s your recipe for a lingering election nightmare.
Virginia and 10 other states either enacted new laws or tightened existing ones in the past two years that compel voters to bring identification with them to their polling places, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In eight of those states, Republicans are governors. Virginia’s law takes effect for the first time this fall.
Republicans say it’s a commonsense way to prevent fraudulent attempts by nonresidents, those who aren’t citizens or disqualified felons to vote. However, supporters could document only a handful of such cases, not widespread or systematic abuse.
Democrats generally opposed the laws, some going so far as to call them Republican voter-suppression efforts passed to keep voters on the margins — the elderly, poor, minorities and young people who historically tend to vote Democratic — from going to the polls.
It’s more than coincidental, Democrats argue, that Republicans muscled the strictures through only after a huge turnout of new voters in the 2008 Democratic tide led by President Barack Obama.
If the presidential and senatorial contests turn into blowouts over the next 64 days, the voter ID law will be a moot point. But if they remain tight, with polls showing margins of only a few thousand or even a few hundred votes, the Old Dominion’s provisional ballots could leave the national outcome in limbo for at least two and a half days.
Even so, it’s the law in Virginia, cleared last month after Obama’s own Justice Department found no violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The federal law makes it illegal to dilute minority voting rights.
Virginia’s law, enacted this year, requires voters to bring any of several forms of ID with them to the polls. Identification has been required of voters for years, but those who lacked it in the past were allowed to sign an affidavit swearing that they are who they claim to be and cast a regular ballot.
The new law allows voters to use voter ID cards; driver’s licenses; military identification cards; or IDs issued to federal, state or local government workers. It permits student IDs issued by any college in Virginia or even a Virginia concealed-firearm permit. In a pinch, a current utility bill, bank statement or government check bearing the voter’s name and current street address will do.
Photo IDs are not necessary in Virginia. In an abundance of caution, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered the State Board of Elections to print and distribute new voter ID cards for every registered Virginia voter before this fall’s elections.
In legislative debate, Virginia Democrats compared the voter ID bill to poll taxes, literacy tests and other racist disenfranchisement tactics of the Jim Crow era. Burt the state’s requirements are among the least restrictive in the nation.
“I see it as just a way to protect the integrity of the process,” said Charlie Judd, a Republican and chairman of the state elections board. “We allow for nine different forms of ID, so I see no reason why anyone shouldn’t have some form of ID.”
The Justice Department rejected laws from Texas and South Carolina, ruling that their specific and narrow photo ID requirements breach the Voting Rights Act. Both states challenged the ruling; an appeals court rejected Texas’ challenge last week, and South Carolina’s case is still in court.
In Virginia, the concern is more focused on time and resources the state board and local electoral boards across Virginia will have to cope with a possible deluge of provisional ballots in a high-stakes election.
“We don’t know what kind of numbers to expect,” said Barbara Gunter, the election registrar in Bedford County. “There is some uncertainty to this.”
Voters who don’t bring acceptable ID with them to their precincts may cast provisional ballots to be counted only if they provide proof of their residency to local electoral boards by noon Nov. 9, the Friday after the election. They can be emailed, sent through the post office, faxed or hand-delivered.
Adding to the intrigue of a potentially too-close-to-call race, the number of outstanding provisional ballots is something the state board won’t know when the polls close at 7 p.m. on election day. It’s not among the information the 134 local officials report to the state board as part of the day’s returns.
Virginia has used provisionals in the past, but never in significant numbers. In the 2008 election, 4,575 provisionals were cast statewide, barely more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total vote of 3.75 million. Virginia Beach and Fairfax County, the state’s two largest localities, together accounted for more than one-fourth of them.
Fairfax County’s deputy registrar, Gary Scott, said they are used primarily by people who had requested absentee ballots but never received them. Their provisionals were counted if elections officials determined that they had not also voted absentee, a time-consuming process.
In November, those provisionals will be kept separate from provisional ballots cast by people who lacked identification.
“Those (provisional ballots cast for lack of ID) will be fairly easy to process because there’s no research required. Either they bring us the ID or they don’t,” he said.
Scott said he doesn’t anticipate more than 1,500 provisionals total to be cast this year for all reasons. In the 2008 election, his locality cast 514 provisionals.
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