Kanawha House of Delegates candidates at odds over voter ID laws
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Candidates running to represent Kanawha County's 36th House of Delegates district clashed over whether the state should enact voter identification laws during a meeting with the Daily Mail editorial board.
Democratic incumbent Danny Wells said voter ID laws were a Republican attempt to suppress minority voters, while Republicans said requiring proof of identity to vote was a reasonable measure.
Four of the six candidates met with the editorial board Wednesday.
The district is one of two carved out of the former seven-member 30th District during last year's redistricting. It covers eastern and southern portions of the county, along with some areas around Charleston.
Wells and fellow Democrats Nancy Guthrie and Mark Hunt currently have 30th District seats and are running again. Guthrie declined an invitation to attend Wednesday's meeting. Hunt could not attend due to a previously scheduled event.
Republican challengers Robin Holstein, Steve Sweeney and Stevie Thaxton all own small businesses in the Kanawha Valley.
Wells and the three Republicans sharply divided over the issue of voter ID.
Holstein, Sweeney and Thaxton all said asking voters to produce an ID would be a reasonable requirement.
But Wells said the issue was being driven by partisan politics.
"It's my opinion, that the voter ID is a calculated effort mainly by Republicans to make it harder for blacks and other groups of people to vote," Wells said.
That accusation drew a strong rebuke from Holstein.
"I categorically reject the idea that I'm a racist for supporting a voter ID," she said.
Holstein said people must have ID to sign up for social programs like the Women, Infants and Children program, Social Security or Medicare, so she didn't feel it would be a burden.
Wells said he didn't mean voter ID advocates were racists. He said voter ID requirements were a Republican tool to keep African Americans, seniors and other minorities — who tend to vote for Democrats — from voting.
He said the issue was largely a national one and being driven by "by more important Republicans than Robin."
Sweeney and Thaxton spoke in favor of requiring voter IDs, saying they commonly have to produce their ID for retail transactions. Sweeney said he recently had to show a photo ID to return something to the Lowe's home improvement store.
Thaxton said he has to show his ID to buy snuff. He also said many places ask patrons to show an ID to purchase alcoholic beverages.
Wells said that was different.
"I don't mind that at all," Wells said. "What's a big deal about getting the proof of your age out of your pocket?"
But he said providing an ID to vote would be a burden. He also said a voter ID requirement would not have stopped recent absentee ballot fraud in Lincoln County.
"We basically don't have a voting problem that would be solved by voter ID," Wells said.
Thaxton said while he did see problems with the state's recent adoption of the federal Real ID standards for driver's licenses.
He said his grandmother had to make three trips to her local Division of Motor Vehicles office to provide all of the necessary proof-of-identity paperwork she needed to renew her driver's license.
"It's just ridiculous that we have to go through all this now," Thaxton said.
Candidates also had differing views on how to shore up the state's road fund. They recognized that the state needed more money but did not like the thought of raising taxes.
Wells said he had been working on a U.S. 60 upgrade project with fellow lawmakers. He said they were tired of hearing from highways officials that they, too, want the upgrades but just don't have the money.
He said the state must make tough decisions to find additional revenue.
"One of these days, I fear the gas tax may have to be increased," he said. "Though I'm not in favor of it, it's better than driving on potholes everywhere."
Thaxton said the state Division of Highways could save money by having state jail and prison inmates perform jobs like litter control.
"Let's get them out and working a little bit and make some use of our tax dollars," he said. "I'd rather see them out picking up trash than up (at South Central Regional Jail) sitting on the Internet, lifting weights and getting free health care that I don't even have."
He said having them work while in jail might also discourage them from breaking laws again once they get out.
Sweeney said he absolutely opposed raising any taxes to shore up the road fund.
"I'm not a big fan of throwing severance taxes and indirect taxes out on the people because it will come back to hurt you," Sweeney said.
"Those are all things that are going to hurt revenue because what business is going to want to open here when they know they're going to have to start paying that?" he said.
Holstein said the state needed a multi-faceted approach to encourage economic growth.
"I think in the short-run with the continued development of the Marcellus shale, severance taxes from those developing industries can stabilize our roads," she said.
She said the state needed to reform its tax code to make it more business-friendly. The economic growth that followed would boost state tax revenues.
"As we bring all these pieces together and improve the overall structure of the economy in the state, I don't think we would have to touch the taxes (to raise revenue), because I think these things will all balance out," she said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.