As the Virginia General Assembly begins its annual winter session, there are many areas of policy that require urgent attention. As we move forward, attention will be paid to transportation, education, and the way we fund our priorities in the Commonwealth, as it should be. However, under cover of a quiet weekend, Republicans in the House of Delegates chose to dispose of legislation related to our fundamental right to vote discretely in early morning subcommittees. A number of pieces of legislation, some of which I sponsored, failed in subcommittee, even with support from top Republican leaders. Bills addressing early voting, disaster preparedness, and the restoration of civil rights were quietly done away with in the early morning hours of Monday and Tuesday, without even the debate of a full committee hearing.
In his Jan. 9 State of the Commonwealth address, Governor McDonnell implored Virginia's state senators and delegates to continue his work, endorsing efforts to re-enfranchise the 350,000 Virginians who have served their time, paid their debt to society, but cannot vote. The Governor's office has made it a priority to restore this civil right, personally re-enfranchising almost 4,000 people last year, but the current petition process cannot address inequity at this scale. That’s why even Governor McDonnell lent his vocal support to automatically restoration of civil rights to non-violent felons who have served their time and made restitution. Still, even a Republican governor could not prevent Republicans on these subcommittees from killing legislation supported by over 62 percent of Virginians.
The long lines at polling places last November should have been a sign of a thriving democracy where citizens choose engagement over apathy, but they are also a sign of the government dysfunction that voters cast their ballots hoping to remedy. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have already implemented early voting programs that could have dramatically shortened those lines, and more than 32 million Americans in those states chose to vote early.
Virginia has an absentee voting program as well, but unlike in those 32 states, here a voter must have an excuse to use the early polling stations and absentee ballots that 11 percent of Virginians already use. Simple legislation was considered that would have removed that excuse requirement, acknowledging that the busy schedules of many hardworking Virginians were reason enough. Instead, we saw delegates choose to discourage civic engagement, refusing to even give a reason why improving access to elections wasn’t worth their time or consideration. This even extended to legislation aimed at being prepared for a disaster. I sponsored a bill that would lift the excuse requirement if a state of emergency was declared within two weeks of an election.
Voting is fundamental to our American identity. We believe in democracy and open elections to choose who leads us as a people. When our system breaks, causing people to wait for hours upon hours to participate in the sacred franchise, it is our duty to find a better way. Quietly removing this legislation from the public discourse of the legislature is unwarranted. This is a discussion that must continue. Some of this legislation is still working its way through the State Senate, and I hope that you will make your voice heard.
Charniele Herring (D-46) presents Alexandria City in the Virginia General Assembly and serves as the House Minority Whip. For more information, visit www.charnieleherring.com or on twitter @c_herring.