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Virginia making strides to expand voting access

By Cecilia Aguilera | March 22, 2020

During the recently concluded legislative session, Virginia lawmakers initiated a much-needed overhaul of the commonwealth’s restrictive voting laws. It’s a good start, but more must be done to protect and expand voting rights.

Specifically, the General Assembly should take steps next year to increase student voting and establish objective criteria for restoring the right to vote to Virginians with felony convictions.

Making it easier to vote strengthens our democracy, and many of the bills passed by the General Assembly would do just that by:

  • Letting all voters vote by mail;

  • Allowing voters to register to vote on the same day they go to the polls;

  • Authorizing local election officials to operate satellite voting centers for in-person absentee voting; and

  • Permitting those lacking an “acceptable” form of voter ID to sign a statement instead, a change that would especially benefit voters with disabilities and elderly voters, who are less likely to have government-issued photo ID.

The General Assembly also passed legislation that helps young voters. Two bills would require schools to make voter registration forms available to eligible high school and college students. Another would permit students to use their student ID cards as voter ID, regardless of where they attend school.

Since 2016, youth voting in Virginia has increased dramatically. For example, in the 2019 general election, turnout by voters age 18-29 increased by more than 235% from 2015 levels. We’re confident these bills will further grow this population’s engagement and power within the electorate.

Looking ahead, legislators should add public universities and community college campuses to the list of sites where local election officials may open satellite voting centers. A study by the Andrew Goodman Foundation found that, in 2018, turnout among young voters increased in Florida counties that adopted early voting centers on college campuses.

Second, we strongly urge lawmakers to adopt a proposed constitutional amendment establishing objective rules for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, instead of forcing these Virginians to seek the governor’s blessing.

Fair Elections Center has challenged clemency-based rights restoration systems in Florida and Kentucky, and our experience has taught us that successful and fair restoration rules avoid vague standards like restoring voting rights only to people convicted of “nonviolent offenses.”

It is not always easy to determine what a nonviolent felony is. Virginia law demonstrates this difficulty, as different provisions define the term “violent felony” in different ways.

Further, a rights restoration constitutional amendment should explicitly state that restoration does not depend upon the payment of any fines, fees or other legal debts. Requiring people to pay these debts in order to regain their voting rights violates the U.S. Constitution by denying the vote to people who cannot afford to pay them.

A person’s wealth should have no bearing on his or her eligibility to vote. By prohibiting such a requirement, Virginia lawmakers would spare taxpayers years of costly court battles like the ones currently taking place in federal court in Florida.

Finally, while most Americans support rights restoration, nearly 70% do not support restoring the vote to people currently incarcerated for a felony conviction. To succeed, any proposed constitutional amendment must consider this landscape.

An attempt to restore voting rights in New Mexico to all people convicted of felonies, including those still serving their prison terms, failed in last year’s legislative session. Reformers in Virginia should avoid a similar result; incremental change that restores the vote to some returning citizens is better than no change at all.

The Virginia General Assembly’s progress this year in creating a more equitable electoral system is commendable. We hope Gov. Ralph Northam will support its work — and Virginia voters — by signing these bills into law. But more remains to be done to bring the commonwealth’s democracy into the 21st century, and lawmakers must continue their reform efforts in next year’s session.

Cecilia Aguilera is counsel at the Fair Elections Center, a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization.

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