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Votes

Column: Battles to Preserve Voter Access

Assembly is seeing numerous bills to limit participation at all levels of voting.

The 2012 General Assembly is in full swing. The committees are selected and legislation filed. Some of the sharpest battles are forming on the issue of voter access.

Before reviewing these bills, it’s important to know the background of voting in the Old Dominion:

Even as the New World's oldest democracy, Virginia has historically limited its franchise. In colonial times, voting for the House of Burgesses was limited to white male freeholders who paid land taxes.

In the early days of statehood, our Constitution limited voting rights to landowners holding at least fifty acres. (The "reform" constitution of 1828 dropped that requirement to twenty-five acres). Only white men were allowed to vote.

After the Civil War, legal rights theoretically expanded as the Commonwealth, like all Southern states, adopted the Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed equal protection of the laws to all citizens. However, there was little change in voting patterns.

The "poll tax" still kept out thousands of voters, mostly black. Local registrars were hard to find -- and had no mandate to enroll new voters. Elections were a closed affair.

Fast forward to 2012. We live in a democracy in which enrollment at the DMV takes a few minutes. Polling locations abound. Election information can be found on-line. Voting has never been easier.

Is this a problem? Apparently.

In 2012, the Assembly is seeing numerous bills to limit participation at all levels of voting:

Some limitations are fundamental (SB 1 -- requires voter to show a photo i.d. and removes ability to sign affidavit affirming identity), some are intrusive (SB 62 -- requires voters to declare a party when they register and restricts their rights to vote in primaries), and some are pernicious (SB 63 -- criminalizes the solicitation of absentee ballot applications in nursing homes).

Selling Ocean City time shares at a nursing home? Legal. Handing out absentee ballot applications? Illegal.

That makes no sense.

We've fought hard to establish an open system in Virginia, from our primaries to our local races. Under that system, every person has an opportunity to vote and participate in choosing the best candidate. Registration rates have never been higher.

The current system works. Let's not change it.