Virginia is in the unique position of having another major election in just a few short months. Virginia lawmakers had an opportunity this General Assembly session to focus on eliminating some of the problems that Virginians faced on Election Day while they were still fresh in their constituents' minds. The General Assembly should have looked to modernize voter registration and make voting more convenient through a number of common sense changes that other states have embraced. Instead of leading the way with innovations in voting, Virginia's General Assembly seems content with allowing Virginia to fall behind the times after an election that showed Virginia still has a long way to go.
The 2012 presidential election taught us that while Virginia has yet to face pervasive "Florida-like" havoc, the Commonwealth's elections could use a makeover. Below are five changes the General Assembly could have embraced to ensure open, fair and more efficient elections in 2013 and beyond:
- Join 32 states and the District of Columbia by offering early voting before Election Day. Many Virginians faced long lines on Election Day which could be alleviated by allowing anyone who is registered to vote before Election Day. A simple expansion of the current in-person absentee balloting that already occurs could make voting more convenient for all Virginians.
- Make voter registration easier, more secure, and save local election officials money by allowing Virginians to register to vote and to update their registration online. Online voter registration, which has been embraced by 15 states, has been shown to significantly reduce data entry errors and voter registration costs.
- Protect Virginians' identities by removing the requirement of a full social security number on voter registration forms, as the vast majority of states have already done. A proposed constitutional amendment to allow this change was defeated last week.
- Follow Governor Bob McDonnell's suggestion and begin the process to change Virginia's constitution to allow for the automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons. While the Senate Privileges and Elections committee approved a measure allowing the General Assembly to pass a law restoring some offenders' civil rights, the House Privileges and Elections subcommittee blocked the bill, ignoring support from the Governor and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Allowing those who have already fulfilled their court ordered sentences to reintegrate into society has been shown to have a positive effect on peoples' lives and removes Virginia from the list of only four states which permanently disenfranchises felons.
- Provide protections for eligible voters who are disenfranchised through no fault of their own. No citizen should be disenfranchised because a bad actor throws voter registration forms in a dumpster, as happened in Harrisonburg last fall. The General Assembly has the power to pass a bill which allows these victims to attest, under penalty of law, that they filled out a registration and cast a ballot. This change will ensure that eligible voters who registered are allowed to vote on Election Day.
Lawmakers in other states have enacted similar reforms that are working around the country to make voting more convenient, save money and promote greater voter participation. Virginians deserve to benefit from these commonsense solutions. While it is too late in this session to accomplish many of these goals, the General Assembly should stop the partisan maneuvering and work together to benefit Virginians for the remainder of this session and should return in 2014 with a goal of bringing Virginia into the 21st century.
FELN Staff Attorney Courtney Mills contributed to this piece.