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Votes

Commentary: Feds Approve Voting Law Changes

— On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice approved Virginia’s voting law changes for use in the Nov. 6 election. Many are questioning why DOJ approved the changes.

Virginia has a long history of voter suppression. When the colonies declared independence from England, only land-owning, male citizens were allowed to vote. In 1851, the Constitution was amended to allow all white men to vote.

During Reconstruction, the people passed a new state constitution called the “Underwood” Constitution which allowed all freedmen to vote. This resulted in large numbers of African American men and low-income whites voting and the number of votes cast in Virginia exploded. The new participants changed the political landscape which led to a new political party called the “Readjuster” Party. This party focused on “readjusting” Virginia Civil War debts, but also on progressive principles such as creating a public school system and public services.

The idea of altering Virginia’s obligations with its creditors shocked Virginia’s former ruling establishment. They argued that this undermined Virginia’s “honor” and good name and they maintained that the government should not be in the business of educating children, that families could pay for children’s education if necessary. They also opposed African Americans participating in government.

In 1902, Virginia adopted a new constitution which was expressly intended to end voting by blacks and limit low-income whites. In order to vote, the constitution required payment of a poll tax and passing a literacy test. It also prohibited anyone convicted of a felony from voting. Future U.S. Sen. Carter Glass declared the purpose was “to eliminate[e] every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate." The convention even refused to allow ratification by voters (because blacks could vote) and it was simply adopted by the General Assembly.

In 1920, passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and gave women the right to vote. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law which abolished poll taxes and literacy tests. States with a history of voting discrimination were put under the control of federal courts. Virginia and Fairfax County are still under a judicial decree which requires federal approval for all changes involving voting, including district lines, polling places, polling hours and times to vote.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Crawford v. Marion County Electoral Board, a case that involved several Indiana nuns who were not allowed to vote because they did not have identification. Since then, many legislatures have passed laws restricting people’s right to vote unless they have identification.

Under the previous Virginia law, voting officials could require identification at the polls, but it was not required. If you did not have ID, you could sign an affidavit affirming your identity. It was a felony to lie. This year, the General Assembly passed legislation that requires all voters to present one of the following to vote: a voter registration card, social security card, a valid Virginia driver's license or government ID, valid Virginia student ID, employer photo ID, utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck that shows the voters name and address. DOJ has blocked voter identification changes in several southern states, but cleared Virginia’s voting law changes this week, probably because our law allowed a broader number of documents to establish identity.

While I do not agree with these restrictions, they are now law. Please make sure everyone in your household knows the requirements.

Also, all please consider absentee voting to make sure your vote is counted. If you work outside Fairfax County (e.g., in Alexandria, the District of Columbia or Maryland), plan on going outside Fairfax County on Election Day or have problems standing in line, you can vote early by mail or in-person at the Mount Vernon Government Center starting on Oct. 17. Voting early avoids long Election Day lines and also ensures that if there are problems with your registration or paperwork, you can catch and clear them up early.

If you have any questions or want to discuss getting your right to vote restored, please call my office. It is an honor to serve as your delegate.