Why was Virginia Whittaker turned away at the polls on Tuesday? Before we get to the answer, let me tell you a bit about this extraordinary woman.
She’s a 1943 graduate of Madison College (now James Madison University) who taught English, science and civics in Eggleston for 36 years. At times she doubled as a librarian and guidance counselor. She lives in a white, two-story farmhouse her grandfather built from a four-room log cabin after the Civil War.
“It’s probably the oldest house around here still standing,” Whittaker told me.
Miss Virginia’s former pupils and their offspring still make up a sizable percentage of Eggleston (pop. 203) and parts of Giles, said her longtime friend Diane Weiss.
“Everyone in Eggleston knows Miss Virginia. Everybody had her in school,” Weiss told me. “She’s a remarkable lady. She can talk on almost any subject.”
Whittaker gave up driving six or seven years ago. Her mind and hearing are still sharp. But as she ages, it’s harder and harder for her to move around. Many of the folks she still sees come to visit her.
With the help of an aide, Sherry Estep, Whittaker gets out occasionally to attend local garden club meetings, get-togethers of retired teachers, to church or for a meal at The Palisades restaurant.
For six or seven years after her retirement, she worked the polls down at Masonic Lodge No. 309 in Eggleston on Election Day. So you can imagine her chagrin on Tuesday, when Estep drove Whittaker to the polling place. There, Whittaker learned from election judge Dawn Norris that she was ineligible to vote.
It was the first time in 72 years Whittaker couldn’t vote. Why?
“The head honcho at the voting precinct wouldn’t accept my identification,” Whittaker told me.
Tuesday started out as a semitypical morning for Estep, who lives few miles away in Staffordsville and votes in the same precinct as Whittaker. She woke up, got out of her house and cast her ballot at the Masonic Lodge by 9 a.m.
Three of the poll workers there asked Estep if “Miss Virginia” would be coming by to vote. Estep said she’d bring Whittaker by later, if she felt up to it. First they had a doctor’s appointment in Christiansburg.
Four times this year since January, Whittaker has undergone surgery for melanoma, the deadliest of all skin cancers. Her first bout with that was 40 years ago, Whittaker told me. “Perhaps I got too much sun when I was young.”
Whittaker was scheduled to have another surgery Monday. Her Election Day appointment was a pre-operation consultation with her doctor. She had another appointment on Friday, at a hospital in Radford, for a pre-operation physical.
Estep arrived at Whittaker’s home about 9:30 a.m., and soon they were on the road to see the doctor in Christiansburg. It’s a little more than 30 miles, one way, from Whittaker’s home, Estep said.
The appointment was at 11 a.m., and they were out of the doctor’s office about 12:30 p.m.
From there they drove directly to the Masonic lodge. They arrived at the polls sometime about 1:30 p.m., Estep told me. “I go slow when she’s in the car with me,” Estep explained.
A man they both knew from the local fire department was standing outside the lodge, directing voter parking. He motioned for Estep to drive around to a rear parking lot, where there’s a handicapped space, and he made sure it was clear.
There, the poll worker can see through a window when anyone pulls up. For elderly voters like Whittaker, they come outside with a portable voting machine.
But first there was a little matter of voter identification.
Norris, who doesn’t live in Eggleston and whom neither Estep nor Whittaker recognized, came outside and went to the passenger side of the car, where she asked Whittaker for her ID.
Whittaker produced a Voter Registration Card. In 2012, the State Board of Elections mailed a card to every voter in Virginia, as a result of a law passed by the Virginia General Assembly that year. That cost taxpayers nearly $1.4 million.
But that card was not good enough, Norris explained to Whittaker. After the 2012 election, the General Assembly changed the law again — in 2013 — to require a photo ID. That law went into effect this past July 1, at an additional estimated cost to taxpayers of $854,000.
So Whittaker produced her driver’s license. But that wasn’t good enough either, because it had expired in 2012. “I didn’t have my driver’s license renewed, because I don’t drive anymore,” Whittaker told me.
Norris explained the law the General Assembly passed in 2013. Whittaker said she was unaware of it. She’s not the only one.
According to the State Board of Elections, at least 773 Virginia voters showed up to vote Tuesday without photo IDs. That’s the count of registered voters without photo ID who cast provisional ballots. Martha Brissette, a policy analyst for the board, said the board has no statistics on the number of voters who showed up without photo ID and who declined to cast provisional ballots.
“I just didn’t know you had to have that card,” Whittaker told me. “You know, they mail everything to you. I had this other little card they mailed to me” in 2012.
“I thought it was pretty ridiculous,” Estep said. “She’s 93. She’s the matriarch of the community. [Norris] said she was sorry, that rules are rules. … It was such a kick in the teeth for her.”
Norris explained that Whittaker could go to the Giles County Registrar’s Office in Pearisburg and get a temporary voter photo ID. Giles County Registrar Donna Altizer, who said she’s known Virginia Whittaker for years, told me her office was issuing those on 8.5-by-11 sheets of paper on Tuesday, and some voters took advantage of that.
To get that temporary ID, Whittaker could have had Estep drive her to the registrar’s office . Once Estep helped the 93-year-old woman out of the car and inside the office, Whittaker would have filled out a form with her name, birth date and Social Security number, then affirmed all that information was true with her signature.
Interestingly, Whittaker would not have had to provide any identification to get her free voter-photo identification.
Then Whittaker could have taken that document back to the Masonic Lodge in Eggleston where they would have allowed her to vote.
But Pearisburg is a roughly 20-minute drive each way from Eggleston. And Whittaker already was tired from her travels earlier that day. So she demurred.
“She was upset,” said Weiss. “I was probably even more upset. I was downright angry.”
The other option for Whittaker was to cast a provisional ballot, Altizer said. Whittaker declined that, too.
“She wasn’t turned away,” Altizer said. “She was given the option of voting provisional.”
If Whittaker had voted provisionally, she would have had to take some extra steps to ensure her ballot counted. To do that, she would have to prove her identity.
That can be done by submitting a copy of a voter’s identification either by fax, email, regular mail or in person, but it has to be done by noon on Friday following the election.
But Whittaker doesn’t own a fax machine. She doesn’t even own a TV. The most advanced communications technology in her home is a radio. And anyway, the ID she possessed had already been ruled invalid.
So Whittaker did not cast a vote in the 2014 general election, because of that 2013 voter-photo ID law.
Ostensibly, it was enacted to prevent the possibility of voter impersonation fraud, an alleged problem that nobody in Virginia has ever been able to precisely quantify.
Proponents of the law typically cite the 2008 election, after which 38 Virginia voters were prosecuted for election fraud, according to an April 2012 report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But most of those cases concerned felons who lied on their voter registration applications. That’s something the 2013 voter-photo ID law didn’t even address.
I mentioned to Altizer that it seemed unfortunate that a law supposedly designed to prevent voter impersonation had instead blocked a well-known 93-year-old retired schoolteacher and former election judge from casting her ballot.
“Mr. Casey, I did not pass the photo ID law. But we have to enforce it,” Altizer replied. “That was a General Assembly decision. And we’re being made to look like the bad guys.”
This whole deal has given Weiss a very different take on the statute.
The law itself, she declared, “is voter fraud at its worst.”