A bitter partisan dispute over Republican bills that place new burdens on voting grew more passionate Tuesday as black leaders compared the measures to Jim Crow-era voter suppression and accused the GOP of intending to “lynch democracy.”
Democrats and minorities used a rally on the Capitol lawn and debate on the House Floor to criticize the measures favored by the Legislature's all-white GOP majority that would put more restrictions on voter registration efforts and require voters to take photo identification to the polls.
Republicans strongly disputed the notion that the bills are meant to suppress voting, saying that they are intended to cut down on fraud in a presidential election year with Virginia targeted as a battleground by both parties.
The chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus accused the GOP of voter suppression.
“We have before us in the General Assembly session an array of voter-suppression bills designed to render you voiceless in 2012, and it's no coincidence that this is happening in 2012,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.
“There are those who are still angry that in 2008 Virginia decided to do the right thing,” Locke said of President Barack Obama's victory, the first in Virginia for a Democrat running for president since 1964.
About 300 people on the Capitol lawn applauded passionate speeches Tuesday. Black legislative leaders and former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis decried the legislation as “arrogant bills by arrogant politicians.”
“What kind of governor, what kind of lieutenant governor, what kind of senator, what kind of delegate would lynch democracy,” Chavis asked in a fiery speech in which he pointed uphill to the Capitol that once housed the Confederate Congress. He called today's Republicans inside it “Old South.”
On the House floor less than two hours later, Delegate Mark Cole's photo ID voting requirement advanced on a mostly party line 66-28 vote. A vote on final House passage is scheduled for Wednesday. The bill requires any voter who fails to bring photo identification to voting precincts to cast a provisional ballot. That ballot would be counted the next day only after the voter's qualifications are verified.
Cole said the measure is intended to cut down on in-person voter fraud. But Cole couldn't cite any instances of voters using fake names to cast ballots when challenged by Delegate Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico.
Two Democrats, Johnny Joannou of Portsmouth and Joe Johnson of Washington County, voted with the House GOP majority, and two Democrats, Lynwood Lewis of Accomack and Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, did not vote.
Before the vote, 74-year-old Delegate Algie T. Howell, D-Norfolk, spoke emotionally of the impediments his grandfather, with only a 3rd-grade education, endured voting in the era of Jim Crow. He called Cole's bill a throwback to that era.
“Even though he felt it was wrong, he paid the poll tax because he wanted to vote,” he said of his grandfather.
Republicans took umbrage at the comparisons to the days when black voter suppression was institutionalized in Virginia and elsewhere.
“(I) just want to slow this down a little bit,” Delegate David Albo said, unsmiling and speaking in deliberate and measured tones in responding to Howell. “Some things have been said on the floor talking about something other than what this bill does. This bill does not deny a single person the right to vote.”
In an ideal world where every voter has a photo ID or isn't frightened off by the necessity of a provisional ballot, perhaps that's true, black legislators said. But Delegate Charnielle Herring, D-Alexandria and a member of the Black Caucus, said at the morning rally that the photo IDs many people take for granted are not commonplace among the poor, minorities, the elderly and students.
“I say to Virginia, wake up: the suppressors are at it again. Wake up, Virginia: they want the elderly to stop voting. Wake up, Virginia: students will not be able to vote. Wake up, Virginia: if your grandparent didn't have a birth certificate, that grandparent will not be able to vote,” Herring shouted to a roaring crowd.
That struck a nerve with 74-year-old Andrew Jackson, of Virginia Beach, who entered the Navy in 1955 and fought in the Korean War at a time when he could not vote back home in Virginia.
“I fought for these people. I'm a veteran. When you go into the military, you go to uphold a democracy back home. When you see things going on like this, you're asking people who are in that uniform to put their lives in jeopardy for a sham,” the rally attendee said in an interview. “Yes, it's personal to me because it violates everything I ever fought for.”
In the Senate later Tuesday afternoon, a Republican-dominated committee advanced a companion measure to Cole's on a party line 8-7 vote. The panel also took up several other measures, including one which would end Virginia's open primary law and require voters for the first time to register by party affiliation to take part in primaries.