Legislators prepare for first session

CHARLESTON – A measure requiring a photo ID at the polls will be taken up when the West Virginia Legislature convenes in February, but gun control issues in the wake of the Connecticut mass shooting will be on the back burner.

The first day of the regular 60-day session begins Feb. 13 when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will deliver his State of the State address. Legislators will be in interim sessions Monday through Wednesday of this week.

With the highest number of Republican members in years, the House of Delegates is expected to take up such GOP-backed issues as education reform, business development and retention and job growth. During the last election, Republicans gained 11 seats in the House and will have 46 of the 100 seats, the largest Republican delegation in almost 40 years. Republicans gained three seats in the state Senate, nine seats of 34.

An early push is for a law to require voters to show photo identification at the polls.

“Requiring identification when voting is a simple step that we can take to make our elections fairer and to ensure that the outcome of our elections actually reflects the will of our citizens,” said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “People are required to show identification to cash a check, to enter many sporting and other events, and to open bank accounts.”

West Virginians now must provide proof of their physical address when they register to vote at a state or county office. They must then sign a poll book, which contains a copy of their signature, before they cast their ballot. Voters who register by mail must show identification the first time they vote.

Voter fraud instances in Lincoln and Logan counties have prompted lawmakers to look at the issue.

A county commissioner, sheriff and clerk in Lincoln County pleaded guilty last year to federal charges accusing them attempting to sway the 2010 Democratic primary with fraudulent absentee ballots. Authorities from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office helped investigate the conspiracy.

Earlier episodes of fraud involved schemes to buy primary votes in Democratic-dominated Lincoln and Logan counties.

“A stronger voter ID law would not have stopped what took place there,” Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said. “We don’t have a problem with voter impersonation. We may have a problem with people trying to manipulate the system in other ways, but let’s not focus on finding a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Tennant said she instead hopes to enlist Republican lawmakers to support a measure from her office that aims to help counties keep their voter rolls up to date. Attempts to attract GOP co-sponsors for that proposal did not succeed during last year’s session. The 2012 Voter ID legislation, meanwhile, never emerged from the initial committee to which it was referred in the House and state Senate.

Armstead said the Republican proposal contains language meant to ensure that legitimate voters won’t be stopped from casting their ballots.

“Allegations that requiring a voter ID would disenfranchise certain groups or prevent our citizens from voting are simply unfounded,” Armstead said.

Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, agrees with the stand to require photo ID at the polls.

“It lessens the chance of fraudulent voters,” he said of reports of people who have attempted to vote multiple times at different locations and so on.

With the amount of scrutiny to get on an airplane to fly somewhere, showing ID to vote is a small step in helping to secure an important right.

“I believe in honest elections and doing anything to minimize fraud,” he said

Anderson said the state needs to allocate money to make sure those who don’t have a driver’s license are able to get a voter ID card at no cost to them. He has sponsored a bill in the past to have IDs shown at polls, but it did not get very far.

Delegate Tom Azinger, R-Wood, said he would support such a measure.

“You have to show a photo ID for a lot of things now,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with doing it at the polls.”

An issue not expected to show up during the legislative session is gun control despite the national attention in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., last month. While the debate fired up nationally, the same is not so at the statehouse in Charleston.

“I have not heard any discussion of it,” Anderson said. “I don’t see it being an issue here.”

Azinger said the last gun measure the Legislature passed was the Castle Doctrine several years ago where people could use a gun to defend their homes and cars from invasion. He doesn’t see gun control being taken up at the state level.

“Someone might take it up in committee, but it probably won’t make it to the floor (of the House),” Azinger said.

The Associated Press contributed.