America was founded on the ideal that our government “... should be of the people, by the people, for the people …” (as Lincoln famously reminded the country during his Gettysburg Address). However, this ideal only works if every citizen exercises their right to vote. Unfortunately, our country has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developed democracies in the world. According to Pew Research, only 56 percent of the voting age population participated in the 2016 election and in the last midterm election in 2014 only 36 percent of people voted nationwide. These statistics beg the question, why are voting rates so low in the country that is seen as a shining example for democracy around the world?
Recently, we have witnessed a number of underhanded, frankly nefarious attempts to restrict voting access across the country in order to disenfranchise certain voters. In North Dakota, there is a new voter I.D. law which requires voters to present their current residential address. As someone who has spent a lot of time on Indian Reservations I can tell you that this is a ridiculous and clearly racially targeted restriction. Few people have a street address on many reservations. Even the UPS driver knows this and is able to find homes using traditional landmarks and knowledge of the community. These barriers to voting go back years, and it wasn’t long ago that in South Dakota the tribal elections would have to take place on a separate day than the federal ones in order to force tribal members to come into the nearest town, often hours away, to vote in one election, and then again, to vote in the other on the following week. Now, we have this new discriminatory requirement for a residential address so that American Indians will once again be denied the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of voter suppression across the country. In Ohio, thousands of voters were “purged” from the voter rolls for not voting for six years. In Georgia, voters are being “purged” for little things like not having matching signatures. I don’t know about you but my signature doesn’t necessarily look the same from day to day, let alone year to year. These laws aren’t aimed at combating voter fraud but are aimed at making it as difficult as possible to vote. A study by Loyola Law School found that between 2000-2014 there were 35 credible cases of voter fraud out of over 834 million ballots! Instead of trying to combat a problem that doesn’t exist, we must try to fix the very real problem of low voter engagement.
One of the key factors in turnout rates is voting access laws at the state level. There appears to be a direct correlation between how easy it is to vote in each state and how many people come out to vote. Here in Virginia, we have a lot of work to do to make it easier to vote. A recent study by Northern Illinois University ranked Virginia as the second most difficult state to vote in, behind only Mississippi. This ranking is based on voter access laws within states, i.e how easy a state makes it to vote. For example, does a state have no excuse early voting? Do they require photo identification to vote? Do they have automatic voter registration? Unfortunately, in Virginia, we fail on every count. We are one of only 13 states that does not have some period of no excuse early voting, and we neither have automatic voter registration nor same-day voter registration (the deadline to register to vote was Oct. 15) and a photo ID is required to vote.
Going forward we must prioritize making Virginia a leader in voting rights. This process started with Governor McAuliffe allowing felons who have paid their debt to society to regain their right to vote. Next, we need to institute automatic voter registration. Delegate Bagby of Richmond introduces a bill every year to institute automatic voter registration only for it to die in committee. Yet, I remain hopeful that we can get this measure passed in the near future.
Additionally, I have introduced legislation to institute no excuse early voting for senior citizens and believe people of all ages also should have this opportunity. It can be difficult to get to the polls on Election Day. Dropping kids off at school, getting to work, fighting through rush hour traffic, picking kids up from school or practice and preparing a good dinner doesn’t leave a whole lot of time left to vote before 7 p.m. No excuse early voting allows folks that have busy lives to plan out a day to vote that works best for them. I am hopeful we will be able to enact some of these reforms soon and turn Virginia into a voter-friendly Commonwealth and increase electoral participation. Remember there is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than exercising our right to vote and we should not inhibit, stifle or suppress that right. All across the globe there are millions of people that don’t have the right to vote for their leaders. Many people still die fighting for that opportunity.