CHARLESTON (AP) - Armed with their largest share of the House of Delegates in decades, West Virginia Republicans plan to resume their push to require voters to show photo identification at the polls, adding the state to a growing group that expect to debate the topic this year.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said the GOP proposal would mandate a photo ID while helping those who don't have such identification to obtain one. The bill is expected during the 2013 regular session of the Legislature, which begins Feb. 13.
"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 Armstead, a Kanawha County lawyer. "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 show up to vote.
"I feel as though we have strong voter ID laws and requirements," said Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia's elections chief.
Both Armstead and Tennant, a Democrat, cited the latest round of election fraud that has long plagued the state and in particular its southern counties.
Three now-former Lincoln County officials - a commissioner, sheriff and clerk - all pleaded guilty last year to federal charges arising from an attempt to sway the 2010 Democrat primary with fraudulent absentee ballots. Tennant's office helped investigate the conspiracy. Earlier episodes of fraud involved schemes to buy primary votes in Democrat-dominated Lincoln and Logan counties.
"A stronger voter ID law would not have stopped what took place there," 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 they were referred in the House and state Senate.
At least 33 states have passed voter ID laws, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Court challenges temporarily blocked photo ID requirements in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Two other states - Ohio and Virginia - have bolstered their laws in recent years, but each allows for non-photo IDs.
NCSL counts Virginia among 11 states where the debate over voter ID continues, with supporters advocating for a strict photo ID requirement.
While Armstead's caucus now holds 46 of the West Virginia House's 100 seats, Democrats hold the rest as well as 25 of 34 Senate seats. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is also a Democrat.
Armstead said the West Virginia GOP 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.
Tennant said she remains willing to consider additional ID requirements. She cited technology that would provide precincts with digital copies of voters' photos.
"If you can assure me that there's no cost on the voter, that the burden is not on the voter, then I am willing to look," Tennant said. "This is different than your driver's license, or getting on a plane, or buying beer or cigarettes. This is a right. Those are privileges, and we should not put undue burdens on someone's right."
Voter ID was an issue in this year's election battle between Tennant and her Republican opponent, Brian Savilla. Tennant defeated Savilla by more than 158,000 or nearly 25 percent, the largest margin of any of the non-federal races for statewide office. A freshman delegate who challenged Tennant instead of seeking a second legislative term, Savilla was also outraised by Tennant in a low-spending contest that competed with the races for such offices as state Supreme Court, governor and U.S. Senate for voter attention.