RICHMOND -- Virginia Democrats vowed Thursday to strike back against Republican efforts to tighten the rules for voting, unveiling a series of bills that would remove what they see as barriers to the ballot box.
Many Virginians waited in long lines to vote last November, and some precincts remained open later than the 7 p.m. closing time because so many people were still waiting to vote. Democrats now say they can fix those problems by undoing long-standing restrictions.
"Everybody who wants to and can exercise their right should not have to choose between their family and their jobs, obligations and the right to cast a ballot," said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax Station.
Filler-Corn proposed keeping polling places open longer -- until 8 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. -- matching the closing times in D.C. and Maryland. Another Democratic bill would allow Virginians to cast their ballots before Election Day. Early voting is now available to only a few groups, including the handicapped, active duty military and students away at college.
The Democratic push for a more open voting process is a reaction to Republican efforts to place additional restrictions on voters. The GOP said the restrictions are necessary to curb voter fraud, but Democrats charge that it's a way to prevent people, mainly the poor and minorities, from voting.
But even as the General Assembly fights over the rules, the one unknown is what kind of changes Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, is willing to accept.
When Republicans last year tightened the rules for voters who show up without a government ID -- requiring them to go home and get their ID before their votes are counted -- McDonnell softened the rule by expanding the kinds of ID voters can use before he would sign it into law.
And in his State of the Commonwealth Address on Wednesday, McDonnell called for the automatic restoration of voting rights for all nonviolent felons who complete their sentences. It sparked the only standing ovation of the night from lawmakers, though most of those on their feet were Democrats, who have advocated for such a change for years. Republican House Speaker Bill Howell said Thursday he was against changing the system.
McDonnell has already restored voting rights to 4,400 former prisoners, more than any other governor.
Even as Democrats push to loosen voting laws, Republicans are still pressing to tighten them -- including undoing McDonnell's changes to the voter ID bill.
Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, filed a bill that would require voters to show a photo ID. Another Republican bill would eliminate some of the forms of ID that McDonnell added last year, such as utility bills.