Column by Kent Willis
We at the ACLU of Virginia have just completed our tenth year of operating an Election Day hotline for voters, and I have two observations. First, Virginia needs to do a better job of training poll workers. Second, Virginia’s election laws need to undergo a major overhaul. Both are easy to fix.
Most poll workers are competent, hard working folks who do a good job. But “most” is not sufficient when it comes to something as vital as voting. It’s not just that every single vote matters, but also that the act of voting for most of us is a profound experience that binds us to our democratic principles and governing institutions. Some of the angriest and most deeply hurt people I’ve spoken to are those who were unable to vote because something went wrong on Election Day.
We know from our hotline that many voters in Virginia who showed up without an ID last Tuesday were told by poll workers they could not vote or that they must cast a provisional ballot. That was wrong. In Virginia, voters who do not have IDs merely need to sign an Affirmation of Identity Form, and they may then cast a regular ballot.
We know that some voters were told they could not vote because they were wearing political apparel. Wrong. Until this year, the right to wear such expression varied depending on how the local registrar interpreted the somewhat murky rules on the subject. Under a 2009 law, however, voters may wear buttons, pins, hats, T-shirts or whatever they want showing support for the candidate of their choice.
We know of voters who were told they could not cast a ballot because they were not on the voter rolls. Wrong. Voters have a right to cast a provisional ballot even when their names are not in the registration book. The provisional ballot may or may not be counted, depending on who is at fault, but it is a far better option than not casting a ballot at all.
We know of voters who had moved since the last election, but whose new address had not been forwarded from DMV to the new registrar. When these voters showed up at their new precincts on Election Day, they were told they couldn’t vote.Wrong. If the move took place in the last 12 months, they could have still voted in their old precinct.
The aforementioned are all avoidable. Planning, training and common sense can fix them, if we have the will to do it.
Unavoidable and more serious are Virginia’s antiquated election laws. We have come a long way since the most convenient and reliable way to conduct elections was to have everyone show up in the town square and place their folded ballot in a carefully guarded box. We need to substantially re-write Virginia’s election laws with one simple goal in mind – to make voting accessible to as many qualified people as possible. Here are some suggestions:
Allow early voting for everyone. Get rid of the current charade, whereby one may vote absentee but only for business, health or about ten other reasons, and just allow anyone to vote up to 30 days before Election Day. This will reduce some of the strain on poll workers, and it will allow thousands of people to vote who do not qualify for one of the exceptions but may not be able to be at their polling place on Election Day. Two-thirds of the states have already instituted this easy fix.
Allow everyone to vote who is of age, including felons. We waste a huge amount of taxpayer’s dollars running criminal background checks on voters to make sure they are not felons and on the clunky process of having the Governor and his staff review lengthy court and corrections records so they can restore the right to vote for a couple of thousand individuals each year. In the process, we deny the right to vote to more than 300,000 people who have committed crimes, but have now fully repaid their debt to society. Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states in the nation still lugging around this old Jim Crow albatross.
Allow same day registration. Nine states do this already and several more are on the verge. In these places unregistered voters may show up at the polls on Election Day, produce the necessary documentation, and vote. Requiring registration and voting to be two separate steps at least thirty days apart is an unnecessary waste of time and resources in our electronic age, and it discourages voting, especially by new voters.
Voting feels like a privilege, but it is a right, and it ought to be easy and accessible. And there is no reason to stick to our old-fashioned ways because we fear voter fraud. Recent studies show that the myth of voters casting more than one vote on Election Day is exactly that. It never happens. Fraud, according to these studies, is committed by those who count the votes, not those who cast them.
So let’s get on with the business of embracing our democracy by bringing our election laws into the 21st century. It’s so easy, even Virginia can do it.
Kent Willis is the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, which operates a nonpartisan election protection program consisting of providing information on voting rights to more than 40,000 voters and operates an Election Day Hotline.