Commentary

How the Big Lie lives on in Virginia politics

January 27, 2022 12:03 am

Voters at the Agricultural Service Center in Buckingham, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Let’s thank leading state Republican legislators for their cognitive dissonance on voting laws. The muddled mindset provides a stark choice for Virginians on what we want this state to be.

Will we welcome all citizens at polling booths and through absentee ballots, making elections more accessible to everyone? Or will we erect new barriers based on fact-free fears, solutions in search of problems and the sinister echoes of chanting insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol a year ago? 

The November state contests saw the Virginia GOP — after years in the political wilderness — win the posts of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and retake the House of Delegates. Yet, elected Republicans are now railing at modifications passed by state Democrats that removed several hurdles to enfranchisement. 

None of these Republican lawmakers suggest their own victories a few months ago were anything but legit. 

Va. Republicans won big under Democratic voting rules. They still want tougher laws.

They would prefer to roll back procedures that made the commonwealth, once infamous for the discriminatory poll tax, fairer for all. They’re doing so with little or no evidence their changes would make voting more secure or accurate. A statewide audit of the 2020 election found virtually no chance the state’s voting system produced a faulty count.  

We do know, however, the Republican initiatives would hurt Democratic-leaning groups, including Blacks, Latinos and the elderly. It’s not an equitable trade-off.

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, proclaimed in pushing for photo ID in Virginia: “In all of socialist Europe you have to have an ID to vote.” 

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, referred to opinion polls showing strong support for photo ID, which Democrats repealed while in control of the assembly. Other voting bills Republicans favor include tighter restrictions on absentee voting, reducing the period for early voting, and banning drop boxes for absentee ballots. 

The state Senate, still narrowly controlled by Democrats, has killed and will reject several of these proposals. As senators should.

You know, it’s tiresome to repeat why one party’s members are so wrong about voting. Explaining their errors, instead of dismissing them out of hand, lends them undeserved credence. 

Here goes anyway:

David Levine is a former deputy general registrar for the city of Richmond and now is an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington and Brussels. He told me this week too many GOP-controlled state legislatures “are fueled in part by the ‘Big Lie’ of 2020,” in which Donald Trump falsely claimed he was cheated out of a second term. 

So instead of changes justified by evidence and security concerns, Levine said, you see reforms “relying on a vague sense” of voter confidence. 

Based on his own experience, there’s little proof photo ID will enhance the security of elections; voter impersonation at the polls is very rare. (I’ve written about this previously.) There is evidence, though, that a photo ID requirement will prevent people from voting, Levine said.

It’s true that most folks have photo ID. But if you don’t drive and don’t fly, you have less need of it. 

The Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning organization, estimates up to 11 percent of eligible voters don’t have the kind of identification required by states with strict ID requirements. “That percentage is even higher among seniors, minorities, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students,” the organization said. 

Nor did any state require photo ID in a presidential election before 2008 – when the candidacy of Barack Obama, who became the nation’s first Black president, drove huge numbers of people to the polls. The timing can’t be a coincidence.

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

Republicans in Virginia also filed bills to repeal the state’s permanent absentee voting list, which lets people sign up to receive ballots by mail in every election instead of having to make a new request each time. Levine called the GOP move counterproductive.

Having such a list “can substantially reduce the time and money it takes to process absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots,” he said. “While still authenticating voters the first time they apply for an absentee ballot, a permanent absentee voting list makes it so that voters don’t have to repeatedly reapply for absentee ballots.”

Some GOP legislators believe drop boxes, receptacles for early votes, are problems. Ken Hughes, researcher at the University of Virginia’s nonpartisan Miller Center, disagreed. 

“I voted by absentee ballot and drop box in the last election for health reasons, as did thousands of other voters,” Hughes told me by email, “and we voted without jeopardizing the security of the election in any way. 

“Politicians grossly exaggerate the problem of voting fraud to give themselves an excuse to engage in vote suppression, a means by which they make it more difficult for the majority to remove them from office and power.”

Nor should we view these actions here in a vacuum. 

After the closely contested 2020 presidential election, officials in many states took steps to place Trump supporters in electoral administrative positions, The Washington Post reported. The threat to democracy – by placing partisan hacks to rule on what should be strictly nonpartisan issues – is clear.

“Citing the need to make elections more secure,” The Post said, “Trump allies are also seeking to replace officials across the nation, including volunteer poll watchers, paid precinct judges, elected county clerks and state attorneys general, according to state and local officials.”

This noxious practice, supporting Trump’s repeated lies and fragile ego, should alarm anyone interested in electoral fairness and accuracy. 

It’s also why Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s announcement this week that he’ll fire Chris Piper, the current state elections commissioner, when his term expires this summer is drawing concern. New governors can put in whomever they want. But Piper, who’s held other jobs in state government, has avoided problems and partisanship during his tenure. 

How restrictive Virginia’s voting laws are will be to lawmakers. It’s up to the rest of Virginians to direct them – and to base that path on facts.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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