Voting rights groups are lamenting the enactment of a new law in Virginia that will require voters to present photo identification before casting a ballot.
The measure, which was passed by the General Assembly last month and signed into law by Gov. Robert McDonnell on March 26, will disallow previously accepted forms of non-photo identification such as utility bills and bank statements.
The change, to be effective in 2014, will have to be cleared by the Justice Department or a federal court under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, since Virginia has a history of discrimination against minority voters.
McDonnell said in a statement that he signed the measure “with the recognition that almost all citizens already have acceptable forms of photo ID that would allow them to vote, and a majority of voters support this policy,” according to media reports.
With the measure’s enactment, Virginia became the latest Republican-led state that has implemented a stricter voter identification law, which supporters say combats voter fraud, and detractors label a Jim Crow-era tactic that disenfranchises minorities, the elderly and the underprivileged.
Legal challenges to those laws are pending in several states.
“With this law, Virginia is taking several steps backwards. The democracy of all citizens has been eroded by enactment of the strict photo ID law,” said Jotaka Eaddy, senior director of voting rights at the NAACP, in a statement. “The NAACP will not only ensure that citizens are educated about this law, but also work to mitigate its impact and fight for its ultimate reversal.”
Advancement Project co-director Penda Hair told ColorLines that the move “places undue burdens on eligible citizens, particularly the poor, the elderly and people of color.”
“Elections must be free, fair and accessible to all eligible voters,” she added, “and these photo ID laws are antithetical to our fundamental democratic ideals.”
With the new legislation, any registered voter without the appropriate ID will be issued identification with the bearer’s photo free of charge.
The governor also directed the State Board of Elections to launch a public information program to educate voters about the new requirement before the 2014 congressional and U.S. Senate elections.
Still, voting rights groups say, the change, coming on the heels of voter ID legislation passed and approved by the Justice Department last year, will foment confusion among the electorate and does not address more pressing concerns such as prohibitively long lines at the polls.
“I understand that there are concerns about protecting the integrity of our elections, but part of maintaining that integrity is ensuring that no qualified voters are deprived of their rights.
This bill doesn’t do that,” said Tram Nguyen, deputy director of Virginia New Majority, to ColorLines. “To change the voter ID law, yet again, within such a short period of time will undoubtedly create unnecessary confusion among voters about which forms of ID are required at the polls. We saw it last November and we may very well see it again this year.”
Activists say they are also confused by McDonnell’s apparent change of heart, given his seemingly progressive stance on automatically restoring civil rights for those previously incarcerated with felonies and his seeming support of the current law.
“I said there was good compliance with the  bill,” McDonnell explained his stance in a WTOP (103.5 FM) interview on March 26. “That doesn’t mean there is sufficient scrutiny if a voter shows up without an ID with a picture – how can you be sure it’s the person?
“I think with those protections in there,” he added, “it’s the proper balance between enhanced ballot security and making sure that no one’s right to vote is encumbered by any burdensome way.”