West Virginia GOP supports voter ID law

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West Virginia is preparing for debate on its own voter identification bill this year, amid a changing political climate in the state and circumstances that differ from election fights in Pennsylvania.

On Nov. 6, Republican lawmakers in the state capital saw the biggest surge in their ranks since the 1920s, with the addition of 11 new members to the state House and the ouster of the incumbent Democratic attorney general. Party leaders are hoping that momentum, when mixed with the notorious history of political mischief in the state, could lead to adopting a voter ID bill similar to one approved by the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature last year.

"Our culture of corruption and our history of voter fraud is very real and very current, unfortunately," said Conrad Lucas, the state's Republican chairman. "To address voter fraud, voter ID is a major step toward stopping that."

In the latest scandal, three Democratic election officials in Lincoln County in the south of the state pleaded guilty last year to stuffing ballot boxes with illegitimate absentee ballots. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, whose office helped investigate the case, noted that voter ID would have had no impact on the scheme. Like in Pennsylvania, authorities can cite no evidence of in-person Election Day fraud of the type voter ID is supposed to block.

"I take very seriously any effort to chip away or manipulate the election process. I'll take a look at [voter ID], but the problem is not voter impersonation," said Ms. Tennant, a Democrat. "I just want us to work together to find a solution for a problem that exists."

Republicans introduced voter ID measures in the House of Delegates last year, but they stalled in committee. The next legislative session does not begin until Feb. 13, but House Minority Leader Tim Armstead told The Associated Press a bill is forthcoming requiring voters to show identification and helping those without ID to acquire it.

Pennsylvania's voter ID bill was approved last year without a single Democratic vote. In West Virginia, the governor's mansion and both legislative houses are held by Democrats, though with November's gains Republicans hold 46 of 100 House seats. Democrats control 25 of 34 Senate seats.

In Pennsylvania, voter ID was introduced in the cauldron of a presidential election year and, after a court battle, suspended for the Nov. 6 vote. It remains in court. In West Virginia, the next high-profile election comes in 2014, when the GOP is eyeing the Democratic seats held by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall.

While opponents of the Pennsylvania measure argued that voter ID requirements would disenfranchise minority and elderly voters massed in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other urban areas, the effect in West Virginia would be different. There, educating poor and elderly voters in rural parts of the state about the requirements and getting them to Division of Motor Vehicles centers to obtain IDs would be the challenge.

The state's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is already watching the issue. "We're alarmed but not surprised given the shift in the House of Delegates. We're monitoring it very closely," said ACLU executive director Brenda Green.

The state requires those registering to vote to provide proof of their address and to show ID the first time they vote. Longtime voters have their signatures matched with those on file at the polls, as was the practice in Pennsylvania.

If Republicans were serious about election problems, Ms. Tennant argues, they would join her in seeking to update county voter rolls, adopt electronically updated poll books and prevent long Election Day lines. Responding to the GOP argument that carrying ID is not a burden since residents already need them for tasks like driving or cashing checks, she said that "everybody doesn't have it. I just don't think we should make policy based on a generalization that you have to have ID to drive. The difference is, there is a constitutional right to vote and it's a privilege to drive a car."

In a state where corruption is so widespread that two governors were sent to federal prison the last half-century -- Democrat Wally Barron in 1971 and Republican Arch Moore in 1990 -- Republicans think they will have the rhetorical upper hand.

"It's a major component to our platform. We're going to gain attention to the way our side helps to change West Virginia," said Mr. Lucas, the GOP chairman.

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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