The most sacred right of a citizen of our democratic republic is the right to vote. To select men and women to serve as our elected representatives on city councils and boards of supervisors to state legislatures, all the way up to Congress and the White House. The right to vote is fundamental to who we are — and want to be — as a nation.
In the early days of the Republic, the right to vote was restricted to white, male property owners. Enslaved Africans, in a deal to lure enough of the 13 states to ratify the new U.S. Constitution, were counted as three-fifths of a person for determining how many seats a state would get in the House of Representatives, but it would be almost two centuries before their descendants would gain access to the ballot. The 15th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, theoretically recognized the right of African Americans to vote, but it wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 that the federal government began to enforce the law. Women, even if they owned property in their own names (which itself was rare), only got to the right to vote 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment passed.
All of which is to say that access to the ballot box has been a tale of gradual enlargement of the franchise, oftentimes with violence perpetuated against those seeking to enjoy the fruits of American democracy by a majority fearful their rights would be curtailed in order to recognize the long-ignored rights of others. Think of the demonstrations led by women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony and the bloody reactions she and her supporters met. Or the horrid injustice of American apartheid Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and a host of civil rights heroes, both famous and not, fought against for a century, often at risk to their own lives.
So it’s important that the General Assembly this year is taking steps to make it easier for Virginians to exercise their right to vote. The more people who have access to the ballot box — and who exercise that right — the healthier our democratic republic is.
Just in the past couple of weeks, several measures have advanced in the Assembly that expand access to the franchise.
One is the a bill that would make Election Day in November a state holiday. Public employees in local and state government would get the day off, and private employers would be strongly encouraged to follow suit. Ironically, the Assembly has proposed eliminating the state holiday honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — military leaders of the cause to preserve chattel slavery — to make room for the day on the calendar.
Another piece of legislation making its way through the Assembly would create “no excuses needed” absentee voting. Under current law, which has been in effect for decades, a person must stipulate which of an enumerated list of reasons prevents him from showing up at the polls on Election Day. It’s a legal document, signed under pain of perjury. Is it possible some folks in the past have told a little white fib in order to cast an absentee ballot before Election Day — a parent who has to work and then pick up the kids at school for their full schedule of activities, an elderly person who just doesn’t want to deal with the crowds at her precinct or a person for whom it’s just more convenient to vote on his own schedule? It absolutely happens, and there’s no reason to make it a crime.
Other voting bills in the legislative hopper include the extension of the deadline for receiving military and overseas absentee ballots, authorizing local registrars to create satellite offices to facilitate absentee voting, the pre-registration of teenagers and elimination or modification of the state’s requirement for photo-IDs.
There’s simply no reason not to make it as easy and as simple as possible for the greatest number of people possible to exercise their right to vote.
Speaking with a Harrisonburg television station, Jenny Glass, the director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, put it this way: “Restrictive voting provisions almost always disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals because those are the groups that move more frequently, work multiple jobs and have less spare time.”
Couple these steps with the ongoing initiative begun by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to restore voting rights to non-violent ex-felons, and finally Virginia is moving in the direction of enfranchising all its people. We need to remember that a healthy republic has nothing to fear from an increasing number of its citizens making their voices heard on Election Day.