Election Day is just a few short weeks away. It’s the day when voters have their say. When we vote, we want our elections to be fair, our votes to count, and our voices to be heard. This year, for the first time, Falls Church voters and voters across the Commonwealth will be required to present a government issued photo identification before they can cast their vote, and that’s a shame.
I have made election process improvement one of the pillars of my legislative platform since being elected to the House of Delegates. When it comes to election administration, fair and uniform practices must be in place to ensure that every qualified voter can exercise their Constitutional right to vote. That is why I introduced bills during my first session to expand opportunities to vote early and to allow registrars to experiment with innovative techniques to increase voter participation. Unfortunately, due to the current makeup of the Virginia House of Delegates, which is dominated by very conservative Republicans, those bills never made it out of committee.
Until this month, I would have told you that it could take years – possibly decades – before the Virginia legislature was willing to seriously consider such proposals. Recently, though, significant court decisions reigning in the excesses of similarly conservative state legislatures provide some reasons to be optimistic. From challenges to the definition of marriage to voter ID laws to racial gerrymandering, the courts have refused to ignore facts and have begun to insist that state governments rely on verifiable evidence before passing laws that impact fundamental rights.
The court case that received the most attention, of course, was the supreme court’s decision to let stand the 4th Circuit’s ruling that the Commonwealth’s ban on same sex marriage is unconstitutional. It is unfortunate that it took the courts to bring Virginia’s marriage laws into the twenty first century. Finally, same-sex couples in Virginia will be able to legalize their unions.
In the last week, though, the courts have also weighed in on laws in a number of states where barriers were put in place that undermine the fundamental right to vote, particularly of voters in underrepresented communities.
Courts invalidated laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas requiring photo ID in order to cast your vote in person or absentee, finding them unconstitutional and without a rational basis.
Here in Virginia we now have one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country, in spite of the fact that nearly 200,000 Virginians who are registered to vote don’t have a photo ID issued by the Virginia DMV. While some of those may have picture IDs issued by a state university or military branch, the vast majority of them don’t. In Fairfax County alone there are over 13,000 registered voters who don’t have DMV issued IDs.
It is essential to our democratic form of government not only that we all have the right to vote, but that we make it easy to exercise that right, and pass laws to encourage participation.
Of course, one of the most suppressive tactics used to decrease voter participation is the drawing of legislative district maps. Political gerrymandering has gone from an art to a nearly exact science in Virginia. As a result of access to precise, street level data on voter habits and software that makes it easier than ever to manipulate precinct & district boundaries, most districts at every level in Virginia, from the House of Delegates to the U.S. Congress, are drawn to be so safe that many voters decide that voting no longer matters.
In Virginia, the federal court threw out our Congressional District map, ruling that it packed African-American districts into a single congressional district not to increase their representation in Congress, but to dilute their influence in Virginia’s other 10 congressional districts. The General Assembly has been ordered to redraw our Congressional map by April of next year.
Recent elections, like Attorney General Mark Herrings, 156 vote statewide victory, and long ago elections like that of my predecessor, former Delegate Jim Scott, who won his first election as delegate by a single vote, prove that every vote counts and should be counted.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at [email protected]