This week’s edition of my Richmond Report is really coming to you from Richmond this month. The House of Delegates convened for our “short” 46-day session last week. With one full week behind us, things are starting to ramp up. A 46-day session means each chamber only has three weeks to work on its own bills before we reach cross-over and have to send them down the hall to the other side of the Capitol.
This past Saturday, many of you joined state Senator Saslaw and me for our annual early-session town hall, where we discussed our legislative agendas, priorities, and other issues that mattered most to our community. We covered a lot of ground during our time, discussing a broad spectrum of issues such as solar energy, the impact of Amazon’s HQ2 on our region, the Equal Rights Amendment, education funding and of course, ending partisan gerrymandering, which will be a key fight this year.
Several bills I’ve introduced have to do with improving our system for choosing our elected leaders.
Gerrymandering is just one of many tools used to dilute the political power of specific voting blocs (like voters of a certain party, race, or religion). Perhaps the most insidious thing about gerrymandering though, is that it undermines the doctrine of “one man, one vote” or the idea that all votes cast should be counted equally.
It’s far from the only way Virginia has limited the right to vote. In 2017, then Governor Terry McAuliffe restored, en masse, the civil rights of 200,000 former felons who had served their sentences and paid their debt to society, allowing them to once again register to vote. This decision was controversial because language in our constitution, which traces its legislative history to the Jim Crow era, makes Virginia one of a handful of states that permanently deprives convicted felons of their voting privileges. The State Supreme Court eventually overturned the mass restoration, forcing McAuliffe to reinstate the rights of each felon individually.
Governor Northam continues the practice of routinely restoring the rights of felons individually as they complete their sentences and the process remains cumbersome.
That’s why I have introduced HJ598 — The Right To Vote — an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia to ensure that every person who is a U.S. Citizen and at least 18 has a right to vote and that no law can revoke that right. (Friendly reminder that in Virginia, Constitutional amendments must be passed through the full General Assembly twice before it can be put on a ballot to be voted on by the voters of the Commonwealth.)
There are other, more subtle ways that Virginia makes voting more difficult.
Which is why I also introduced HB1904 to allow voters who show up at the poll on Election Day not realizing that they needed to register or re-register the ability to apply for registration on the same day and cast a ballot.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 states plus the District of Columbia offer same day registration. States like California, Colorado, and Wyoming utilize state networked e-poll books to verify that voters are eligible to vote and that the voter has not registered or cast a ballot at a different location in the state. And guess what? It works!
Multiple studies have shown that on average, offering same day voter registration increases turnout by 3 to 7 percent, and about 5 percent on average.
Unfortunately, HB1904 didn’t make it out of subcommittee, but I plan on introducing a similar bill again next year as part of a larger, more comprehensive proposal to reform our elections systems and processes.
Voting is a basic right and we should be lowering barriers of access to the ballot box and ensure voting is a free, fair, and accessible process. We should also invest to make sure that every person who is eligible can vote without barriers.
Finally, voters need to have faith that the leaders they elect will act in their best interest, and not be overly influenced by the demands of constant fundraising and the strings that at least appear to come with some of those campaign contributions.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at [email protected]