By Trevor Potter
Potter is president of Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a nonpartisan election law organization. He formerly served as general counsel for John McCain’s presidential and Senate campaigns and was chairman of the Federal Election Commission. He lives in Fauquier County.
Voting is becoming easier for Virginians. Several election-related reforms went into effect in Virginia on July 1. These improvements will remove many obstacles for Virginia voters while still providing strong assurances against fraud.
Democracy reform in Virginia was long overdue. In fact, as recently as 2018, Virginia was considered to be the second most restrictive state for voting, according to a study by Northern Illinois University. But this reform package has the potential to flip the script and make Virginia a national model, by implementing common-sense provisions to ensure Virginians are able to securely cast their ballot.
One of the most striking reforms is changing Virginia’s problematic photo ID requirement. Until now, Virginia was one of 18 states that required voters to show a form of government issued identification that included a photograph in order to vote. The photo requirement was the equivalent to taking a sledgehammer to nail in a picture hook — and hitting many voters in the thumb in the process. Not every voter has a driver’s license — by far the most common form of state issued photo ID. Elderly voters and others who don’t drive often don’t have current valid licenses — and studies show that voters of color are less likely to have them, or other photo IDs. Some people respond “but everyone needs a current photo ID to fly” — which is not strictly true according to TSA, and reflects a very skewed view of the world, as many Virginians are not in the habit of flying for age or financial reasons (even before the pandemic).
Photo ID laws are widely considered to be, at their best, unnecessarily burdensome and, at their worst, discriminatory and disenfranchising. Virginia was no exception; civil rights groups sued the state over the law’s disparate impact on minorities. But this past year, the state legislature took action and passed a law to change its most burdensome requirements. Now, voters can show a much wider range of acceptable IDs when they go to vote, including bank statements, government checks, utility bills, and voter confirmation documents.
Virginia also passed a no-excuse absentee voting law. Before this bill was passed, Virginians had to provide one of a number of “acceptable excuses” provided by law to vote absentee. Now, Virginians can request to have a ballot mailed to them in advance of the election for any reason. Additionally, Virginia has made Election Day a state holiday. Making Election Day a holiday serves to encourage higher voter turnout and reduce the occurrence of long lines at the polls before and after work.
But that’s not all: in yet another win for democracy, Virginia will now implement automatic voter registration (AVR) through the DMV and their website. AVR is proven to encourage civic engagement by automatically registering legally qualified people to vote when they access services at the DMV (people retain the option to opt-out of voter registration if they choose).
These election law reforms come in the wake of many other promising developments for Virginia voters. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented threat not only to the health of our citizens but the health of our democracy, a federal court ordered the removal of a requirement that absentee voters obtain a witness signature in order to cast their ballot this year. And, in November, we Virginians will have the opportunity to amend our Constitution to use an independent redistricting commission to reform the way electoral districts are drawn, taking the power out of the hands of self-interested politicians.
Virginia’s leadership on democracy reform could not have come at a more critical time. With a presidential election less than 150 days away, and the looming threat of a possible second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, governments need to be doing everything that they can to make voting more accessible to its citizens. Virginia has shown other states that this can — and should — be done.