By Maella Somerville
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – As if waiting in hour-long lines at the polls this past November wasn’t bad enough, legislation before the General Assembly may make it even harder for some citizens to vote.
Tram Nguyen is a naturalized United States citizen. She was born in a refugee camp during the Vietnam War but has lived in the U.S. almost all her life. She graduated from the Henrico County Public Schools and then from college. Now she fears she may not be able to cast a ballot in the next election.
Nguyen, the associate director of the Virginia New Majority, a group dedicated to “progressive civic engagement,” joined Democratic state legislators in a press conference Monday to express her opposition to bills that may erect obstacles at the polls.
For example, Senate Bill 1077, introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, would require the state to check a federal database to ensure that people seeking to vote in Virginia are indeed citizens.
“SB 1077 targets people like me,” Nguyen said. “When I turned 18, I was finally able to go through the naturalization process and become a U.S. citizen. I took an oath of allegiance to the United States. I and naturalized citizens like me take that oath very seriously and very proudly.”
If the bill passes, she said, naturalized citizens would “have to go through extra steps to secure our fundamental right to vote.”
As Delegate Alfonso Lopez, a Democrat from Arlington, explained, “SB 1077 would authorize the State Board of Elections … to access a federal database for the purpose of verifying the citizenship status of everyone who is registered to vote.”
Critics say the database, called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program, is flawed. The lieutenant governor of Colorado, a state that has used the program, said it was “riddled with errors.”
“U.S. citizens would be incorrectly targeted and flagged for removal from the voter rolls,” Lopez said. “An expensive and inaccurate system that targets naturalized citizens is simply not a system worth pursuing.”
SB 1077 was approved by the Senate, 23-17, and is now before the House.
Democratic lawmakers also expressed concerns about SB 1256. It would require voters to show an official photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport – “a kind of ID these politicians know many voters don’t have,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.
Locke said the bill “will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Virginians to vote. [It] would disproportionally affect seniors, students, low-income and minority voters.”
“Our elections should be free, fair, and accessible,” Lock said. “Voting is a fundamental right. It’s fundamental to freedom.”
SB 1256, also sponsored by Obenshain, squeaked through the Senate after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast a tie-breaking vote. The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that delegates approve it.
Supporters of SB 1077 and 1256 say the bills would help prevent voter fraud. But Lopez said they could “easily deny actual U.S. citizens their right to vote.”
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.