McDonnell’s Voter ID Choice
With apologies to my Massachusetts-born wife, Virginia is the birthplace of American democracy. We are also the birthplace of American democracy’s greatest abuses, such as Massive Resistance. That’s why it’s so fitting that we have become, in a year when America will decide whether to re-elect out first African-American president, the most “swingy” state, in the words of a recent CNN article. Nothing is easy here, but I’ve always felt that’s why Democratic victories in Virginia usually offer the most robust path forward for Democrats nationally.
The same is true for the opposite side as well. Bob McDonnell is actively positioning himself for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. Perhaps with a little too much saliva — I really have never seen anything like his expensive new TV commercials that seek to re-brand himself before his own constituents as a successful governor. Usually, for governors, actions speak for themselves — not advertising and PR campaigns paid for by your donors.
But actions are louder than words, none more so than the decision McDonnell faces soon about whether to veto the bill passed by the farthest-right of his legislative colleagues to require IDs from anyone voting. The bill is an affront to our democratic aspirations on several fronts. First, it’s plainly political, promising to specifically impact several thousand young, minority, and aged voters who will largely vote Democratic because of their relationship to our policies, and offered in a year when the thinnest of margins could turn Virginia red.
Second, it creates a barrier between a potential voter and the voting booth. The bill’s sponsors claim not to understand the lives of people who lack government-issued IDs or the means to access them, but they exist, and there are thousands of them.
Third, it violates the simplest of principles, which is that democratic rights should expand rather than constrict over time. I remember so clearly one time when I was in Richmond with the New Electoral Reform Alliance for Virginia advocating for a bill we had helped introduce with the help of several legislators to remove excuses for absentee voting and establish an early voting system in Virginia. One Republican legislator looked at us straight in the face and said she thought voting should be harder, that people should have to reorganize their lives to vote on a Tuesday before 7 p.m. She was essentially saying that voting was a privilege, not a right. It was a fundamental, philosophical difference.
All this now comes to Bob McDonnell’s doorstep, and several things hinge on it. First, his legacy — does he want to be remembered for ushering in a newly restrictive chapter in Virginia’s democratic story? The Obama Department of Justice will almost certainly take action against the bill if he does sign it, and he will likely lose both substantive battles in court as well as the broader public opinion battle. Second, his VP chances. Clearly, some Republicans want McDonnell to stand by party, sign the bill, and deliver the margin for victory it promises, but does he want to create a controversy around himself as Mitt Romney’s potential VP?
For an example, see today’s excellent editorial in the Washington Post:
Faced with voter ID legislation that would disenfranchise thousands of Virginians, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is in a quandary. He can veto the bill and incur the wrath of fellow Republicans, or sign it and reinforce the GOP’s image of hostility toward young, poor and black voters.
Mr. McDonnell is all too aware that the bill, passed by Republican lawmakers despite his warning about legislative overreach, is gratuitous at best. That’s why he sent it back to the General Assembly with amendments that would eliminate its most obnoxious feature: a requirement that ballots cast by voters who lack identification be thrown out unless the voters make a separate trek to local electoral offices to prove their identity.
It’s unclear what he’ll do, but if there’s ever a time when loud voices can make a difference, it might be now — particularly those who argue from democratic principle, illuminating the shadow this bill will cast not only over Virginia, but over McDonnell’s legacy.