Virginians don’t have to show ID to vote anymore. Data shows almost everyone still does.

Numbers cut against both parties’ talking points

By: - August 23, 2021 12:03 am

Election officials check in voters at the Dillwyn Rescue Squad Building in Dillwyn, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s laws have changed in many ways to make voting easier, but all voters are still asked to verify who they are when they go to the polls.

For most people, that means pulling out a driver’s license just like they did before the state changed last year to no longer require photo IDs. For others, it could be a utility bill, paystub or bank statement.

But under new voter ID rules approved by the Democratic-led General Assembly, voters with no identification can still cast a regular ballot, as long as they sign a form swearing they are who they say they are.

State officials don’t track how many people vote that way. But a Virginia Mercury review of data from some of the state’s biggest localities shows relatively few Virginians voted in the 2020 presidential election without showing an ID. 

In the eight localities that provided numbers to the Mercury, a total of 1,000 people voted without showing ID, or about 0.05 percent of the nearly 1.8 million ballots cast in those localities. 

While not comprehensive for the entire state, the eight localities accounted for about 40 percent of the 4.46 million votes Virginians cast in the 2020 election.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous locality, 259 people cast ballots without showing ID. With 600,823 votes cast in Fairfax overall, that represents 0.04 percent of the county’s ballots.

Out of 127,109 ballots cast in the city of Chesapeake, no one voted without showing ID.

In Virginia Beach, 187 people voted without ID, or 0.08 percent of the city’s 227,561 ballots.

The Mercury also sought information from Prince William County and the city of Richmond but has not yet received data from those localities.

Though voter ID could be a hot topic in November’s elections, the small number of people who took advantage of the new, looser ID system indicate the real-world impact may be less dramatic than either party's rhetoric on the issue suggests.

Republican warnings that lax ID laws could lead to fraud or confusion don’t appear to have borne out. There have been no reports of imposters voting as someone else, a possibility GOP legislators raised during debate over the new rule. If someone got caught trying, they could be charged with a felony.

At the same time, the data lends only minimal support to Democrats' suggestion that a substantial number of ID-less Virginians were having their votes suppressed under the old law, which required local election offices to provide a free photo ID to any registered voter who needed one.

The repeal of Virginia's photo-ID law also came amid a pandemic-induced spike in voting by mail, which meant fewer people voting in person.

According to local election officials, many people showing up at the polls in the 2020 election assumed they'd need to show ID and readily provided it. 

A recent Monmouth University poll found that 80 percent of Americans favor requiring photo ID at the polls, with strong support across political ideologies and racial groups.

Ravi Udeshi, an election officer manager in Fairfax, said people who were able to vote without ID clearly had a "much better voting experience" under the new system by not having to take additional action to verify their ID later.

In addition to getting rid of the strict photo ID requirement, the new Virginia law also broadened the list of acceptable forms of ID to include expired driver’s licenses, student ID cards from out-of-state institutions, utility bills, pay stubs and other government documents showing the voter’s name and address.

Though difficult to track, the expanded list of accepted ID types may also explain the small numbers of people voting with no ID at all.

“Most registered voters have some valid form of voter identification,” said Norfolk Registrar Stephanie Iles, who had 20 voters cast ballots without ID in the 2020 election.

Henrico Registrar Mark Coakley said people in his county who voted without an ID tended to be elderly residents using curbside voting or voters who heard they didn’t need an ID and wanted to try the new process.

“Before we had the free photo ID at the office, so if a voter did not have an ID we would go ahead and give them the free photo ID,” said Coakley, whose county had 158 people vote without ID out of 183,152 ballots cast. “Every election we would have somebody who would want a free photo ID.”

The free-ID provision helped Virginia’s old law withstand a legal challenge in federal court, with judges ruling the law did not disproportionately burden young voters and minorities and finding no evidence of discriminatory intent with the photo-ID law’s passage in 2012.

After the old law was upheld, Democrats and voting-rights advocates said they still thought it created unnecessary barriers and did little to improve security since cases of election fraud are vanishingly rare. When Democrats won control of the legislature in 2019, they repealed the photo-ID requirement.

A total of 36 states have laws requiring or asking voters to show identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though the fate of North Carolina’s photo ID law is unclear due to ongoing litigation over whether it has a racially discriminatory impact.

In some states, voters who go to the polls without an ID can cast a provisional ballot, meaning their vote will be set aside and counted only if the voter follows up later and verifies their identity. 

In Virginia, voters who don’t show ID and don’t sign an ID confirmation form can cast a provisional ballot.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has made restoring the state's photo-ID law a key facet of his "election integrity" campaign push. His opponent, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, opposed the photo ID law during his first term and has vowed to protect voting access if elected again.

Correction: Due to an error by the Fairfax County registrar's office, an earlier version of this article misstated the number of ballots cast without ID in the county during the 2020 presidential election. 

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]