Virginia looks to toughen voter laws as Maryland does the opposite

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Local,Maryland,Virginia,Steve Contorno,Andy Brownfield

Virginia is heading toward tough new restrictions on voting following last November's election, while across the Potomac, Maryland is doing just the opposite.

It's the latest evidence that the two states are following the diverging national trends of the parties that control their respective statehouses.

The Virginia Senate approved a Republican-backed measure Friday that requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls in order to cast a ballot starting in 2014. If it's signed into law, it would make Virginia the 10th state to pass such a mandate.

Republicans said it's a necessary step to prevent election fraud. But Democrats said the GOP is moving the goal posts after changing voting laws last year to require that Virginians bring any ID, with or without a photo, to the polls.

"A year later, we still have no evidence of voter fraud. None at all," said Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has not indicated whether he would sign the bill, but a spokesman said "the governor believes Virginia's current system generally has proven successful."

One sticking point for McDonnell could be the cost. To get around constitutional concerns, the bill requires the state to issue a photo ID to anyone who asks, and according to a legislative fiscal analysis, that would cost $840,000 in the first five years.

An independent study by the Commonwealth Institute estimated costs between $7 million and $21 million, based on experiences in states such as Indiana where similar laws have been passed.

"Courts have said that states must require those IDs for free and you need to also provide for free access to the underlying documents needed to get those IDs, like birth certificates," said Michael Cassidy, president of the institute.

Meanwhile in Maryland, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to relax restrictions on voting.

O'Malley has introduced legislation to allow Marylanders to register and vote on the same day during an early-voting period. And it would expand that period from six days before an election to eight.

Maryland would join 12 other states and the District in allowing same-day registration and early voting.

David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he's skeptical of the proposed changes.

"Any time Martin O'Malley or Democrats start to talk about changing election laws, I'm very suspicious of their motives," he said.

Republicans in Virginia are following a GOP movement nationwide to tighten voting laws in the name of election integrity, though liberals insist it's a backdoor attempt to keep low-income, Democratic-leaning voters from showing up. And O'Malley is copying other Democrats in easing election rules after voters suffered long waits at the polls last November, much to the dismay of conservatives, who see it as an opportunity to let cheaters run rampant.

But as far as ballot access, Maryland and Virginia aren't that different, said Michael McDonald, associate professor and election law expert at George Mason University.

"If we were having this discussion just a few years ago, I would have said Maryland was more restrictive," he said. Maryland amended its constitution to allow early voting in 2008.

Virginia requires people to give an excuse to vote early or absentee, but the list of allowable excuses is permissive, such as a long workday. Early-voting turnout there was in the teens, while Maryland reported about 20 percent.

"In shades of gray between Maryland and Virginia, I don't see much of a difference between them as between different states like Mississippi, where you had 5 percent early turnout, and Colorado, where you had 80 percent."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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