Del. Saira Blair, R-Berkeley

CHARLESTON — Legislative efforts to prevent in-person voter fraud generated discussion Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 2781, sponsored by Del. Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, would require voters to present government-issued photo identification at a polling place to verify their identity before casting their ballot. The bill would additionally eliminate the Automatic Voter Registration initiative found on a driver’s license application.

If passed, West Virginia would be the eighth state to pass photo ID laws. Exemptions to the bill include nursing home residents and those who have religious objections to being photographed. Student IDs were also removed as legitimate forms of government photo IDs.

Eli Baumwell, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union for West Virginia, said the proposed legislation posed a number of problems for underprivileged residents, specifically minorities and low-income families.

“When these laws are put in place, a lot of people are held back by a lack of information,” Baumwell said. “Even if a state does offer a free ID at the DMV, if they aren’t informing people who may not be eligible for a driver’s license, those individuals may never think to go to the DMV. They may not be able to afford cab fare or get a ride to the to get the alternative identification, so if they don’t know there are options, they won’t attempt to get an ID.”

According to the ACLU, approximately 21 million Americans lack government-issued photo identification. Among minorities, “up to 25 percent of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID,” the ACLU website states.

“This shouldn’t be an issue of partisan politics,” Baumwell said. “Last year Patrick Lane (member of the Judiciary Committee) said that if a single vote was suppressed by the legislation, he would not support it. Now we have a situation where we are dramatically reducing the available types of IDs. I would call on anyone who supported the wide variety of IDs to reject this because of the high risk of suppressing votes.”

Ideally, Baumwell said, voter ID laws would not be necessary.

“I think this is essentially a poll tax,” Baumwell said. “All the forms of ID that are required either directly require you to pay a fee whether it’s a driver’s license fee or a passport fee or a fee to get the appropriate documentation. They provide for you a free ID but you have to have a state certified birth certificate, and if you don’t have one on hand, you have to pay to get that.”

Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the sponsors had not involved the Secretary’s Office in the drafting of the bill.

“We serve at the will of the legislature, and we believe it still reflects the will of the people. What they ask us to do, we will do, but we’ll always take concerns or notes of caution from the ACLU; they are not our enemy and we see their concerns. We just want to increase voter participation and make it easier for residents to vote,” Queen said.

If the legislation is passed, Queen said additional measures would be taken to ensure that disadvantaged West Virginians were given an opportunity to register to vote.

“If they ask us to develop a strategy, we’ll do it,” Queen said. “We can arm our seven field representatives with a printer and a camera for their computer so they can do the registration on the spot so individuals can pick up their ID or have it mailed directly to their residence. We’ll work with the county clerks and do whatever it takes.”

Delegates Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock; Eric Householder, R-Berkeley; George Ambler, R-Greenbrier; Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison; Bill Anderson, R-Wood; Patrick Martin, R-Lewis; Zack Maynard, R-Lincoln; and Tony Lewis, R-Preston, also sponsored the bill.

H.B. 2781 has been sent to subcommittee for further review.

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