Virginia has some of the toughest requirements to vote in the country. Here’s how that could change.
Like many of its laws, the newly all-Democratic Virginia has historically had a more red-state approach to voting access. A 2018 study found the Commonwealth was the second-worst state on voting access in the country, just ahead of Mississippi. Now, a number of voters’ rights groups are now pushing to change that.
“We believe the right to vote belongs to people,” Vishal Agraharkar, a senior attorney at ACLU Virginia, said in an interview. “It is essential to a healthy democracy and is not a privilege that should be used by the government to reward or punish people.”
Agraharkar said one of ACLU Virginia’s top priorities is overhauling the state’s absentee voting system. Virginia is one of 16 states that requires an official excuse to vote absentee. There are 20 “valid” excuses allowed by the state government, some of which require the voter to divulge personal information to prove the validity of the excuse, which may deter people from participating.
Last February, the General Assembly passed a limited ‘no-excuse’ absentee voting bill, which allowed people to vote early in-person. But voters’ rights groups are pushing for an end to official “excuses” altogether, and Democrats, who are set to take control of the General Assembly in January, have already filed multiple bills that tackle no-excuse absentee voting.
Absentee voting isn’t the only issue advocates are focused on this legislative session. Same-day voter registration is another priority, which would be a notable shift from Virginia’s current requirement of registering up to 22 days before the election. Agraharkar said this is an unnecessary obstacle that discourages voters, particularly people “who are new to the new electoral process or who aren’t necessarily paying attention to politics year-round.”
Voters’ rights groups also want action on the state’s voter ID laws. The Republican-led General Assembly implemented a voter ID law in 2012, which required all voters to bring a valid form of ID with them to cast a ballot. Studies have repeatedly found these requirements suppress voter turnout, in large part because many people don’t have an ID. In Texas and Wisconsin, studies showed the laws also prevent people with valid forms of ID from showing up, because they mistakenly believed they lacked the necessary identification.
Other issues being tackled by voters’ rights groups include expanding voting rights to people who have affected by the criminal justice system. Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe expanded voting rights to over 170,000 former felons in during his term that ended in 2018, and this year Gov. Ralph Northam expanded it to another 22,000. Like most states, however, Virginia doesn’t allow those who are currently incarcerated to vote, something that voters’ rights groups hope to change.
In the long term, the ACLU and other organizations are pushing to amend the state’s constitution and guarantee all Virginians over the age of 18 the right to vote. Passing a constitutional amendment in Virginia is difficult, it requires the amendment pass in two consecutive legislative sessions before state voters have to approve is by simple majority.