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State election officials will spend nearly $2 million to prepare citizens for compliance with a new voter identification law intended to tamp down on election fraud in Virginia, where its prevalence is questionable.
Much of that money — $1.36 million — is the cost of printing and mailing voter registration cards to millions of registered Virginia voters, as Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered when he signed the law last May.
Another $550,000 is for a voter education contract awarded to a vendor selected from five bidders. A mix of state and federal funds are paying for the outreach.
That’s a significant outlay for the State Board of Elections, which in 2008 relied on the state Department of General Services for public relations services under a $50,000 annual contract.
This year’s undertaking is massive by comparison, due to a fundamental shift in voting law, a change cleared by the U.S. Justice Department in August, and McDonnell’s mandate to inform the electorate.
To do that, election officials are reaching out to interest groups throughout Virginia’s 134 localities as part of an “Are You Election Ready?” campaign.
Republican legislators this year amended Virginia’s voter ID law by requiring voters to produce an acceptable form of identification to vote on a standard ballot at the polls.
On the expanded list: driver’s license, government-issued IDs such as voter or Social Security cards, valid college or employer cards, a bank statement, government check or utility bill showing the voter’s name and address.
Those lacking ID on Election Day will get a provisional ballot, a vote counted only if the voter presents proof of identity to officials by noon on the third day after the election. Before, voters without proper ID could still vote normally by signing a statement affirming their identities.
Ahead of the 2012 presidential election, several states have adopted stricter voter ID laws. Supporters say the goal is to preserve election integrity, while critics bash them as veiled efforts to disenfranchise groups of voters.
Handling Virginia’s marketing push is Johnson Inc., a Richmond-based, minority-owned firm that was awarded the $550,000 state contract in July.
Johnson Inc. will assist the state in developing and executing a media strategy — it includes newspaper ads, public service announcements, online and social networking, and billboards.
With less than two months until Election Day, elements of that public relations campaign will be evident soon, Virginia Deputy Election Secretary Justin Riemer said.
Already, many of the 4.7 million voter registration cards have been mailed and should be delivered by Oct. 4. Riemer said voters who don’t receive them should contact election officials prior to the voter registration deadline on Oct. 15.
Steps taken to prepare voters for the new law have done little to sate Democrats’ opposition to what state party Chairman Brian Moran said amounts to “Bob McDonnell and his allies … spending taxpayer money on a solution in search of a problem.”
Yet McDonnell has a ready defense to claims that the GOP is limiting ballot box access for political reasons — he’s restored voting rights to 3,800 ex-felons, a record-setting pace in Virginia.
And Republicans can point to episodes such as the distribution of registration forms to ineligible voters and pets by the nonprofit Voter Participation Center last summer as proof of the need for vigilance.
“The last thing we want to do is keep anybody who is eligible to vote from voting. We just want to safeguard the process,” said state Sen. Tom Garrett, who as Louisa County commonwealth’s attorney in 2009 successfully prosecuted two ex-felons for illegally registering and voting.
After the last presidential election, when more than 3.75 million Virginians voted, state police reviewed about 400 election fraud complaints forwarded by the State Board of Elections, with offenses largely occurring before Election Day.