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Opinion Virginia’s legislature is breaking down barriers to voting

Jose and Denise Saldana take a photo of their daughter, Maya, 18, as she casts her ballot for the first time at Goshen Post Elementary School in Aldie on March 3. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Tram Nguyen is co-executive director of New Virginia Majority.

Empowered communities in Virginia are the ones that create real change. We saw that firsthand when voters of all colors, women, low-income workers, and young people showed up to the polls in 2019 to usher in a new legislative majority.

Access to voting has long been a cornerstone for progress. It ensures the system works not only for those with resources and support but also for every other voter. It’s for those of us with inflexible work shifts, for single parents who can’t afford child care and college students not in their home states as they pursue an education. When the poor, communities of color, women, and young people can vote, we become a society that serves the many, not the few.

This year, the Virginia legislature took giant strides toward fuller participation in governance by eliminating obstacles to voting. More than a dozen bills were passed by the General Assembly that will move Virginia into the forefront of voting rights in the United States. The cumulative effect of these and other laws will make it easier for every eligible Virginian to vote. There is much more to democracy than voting, but it is the key to creating a Virginia for all of us.

When we limit whose voices are heard by preventing people from voting on Election Day, the legitimacy of our democracy is undermined.

Too many Virginians continue to find themselves struggling. They struggle to secure affordable housing, to access health care and to send their children to good schools. These obstacles are solvable, but only if we can vote in people who will address these issues meaningfully.

The path toward racial, economic and gender equality requires equal access to the voting booth. Without it, the efforts of people and community organizations can never effect lasting change. “Access to voting is foundational to our democracy, and this session we have increased access for generations to come in Virginia,” said Del. Marcia “Cia” Price (D-Newport News). “Real progress involves the voting booth, and a true democracy does not exclude any citizens from participating.”

The elite lawmakers and power brokers of Virginia’s past understood this as well, enacting obstacles to voting that would help them preserve power. These barriers skillfully excluded people of color, poor people, immigrants and, at one time, women. This was the Virginia of polite voter suppression.

But we are dismantling those structures and reclaiming a broad democracy. Election Day will now become a state holiday by replacing Lee-Jackson Day, opening voting to many who have to work long hours and providing every eligible voter a guaranteed opportunity to cast a ballot. We will have automatic voter registration as a permanent option for voters, thereby removing an extra step.

Now, when Virginians go to the polls but find they don’t have a photo identification, they will be able to present alternative forms of ID or sign a sworn statement in lieu of any identification, preventing more eligible voters from being turned away at the last minute.

Last, legislators have eliminated multiple barriers to absentee voting: allowing voters to request a permanent absentee voting status, to vote 45 days before the election without having to provide an excuse, to receive ballots annually by mail and to request a late absentee ballot in the event of unforeseen emergencies or hardships faced by a voter.

Once Northam signs these bills into law, Virginians will have more of a voice in the future of their state. This legislative session, Virginia politicians became leaders of the voting-reform movement. Voters have the power to reshape how politics works in Virginia. We need race, class and gender to be embedded in policies, and that only happens when candidates who match our values are elected. Until we reach a democracy that works for all Virginians, there’s more work to be done.

There’s power in politics that is inclusive, that’s focused only on building a brighter future for our communities. People know what they need. We must take the time to listen. The more young people, working-class, multilingual and formerly incarcerated individuals have access to the ballot, the greater our chances of enacting good policies. Our democracy performs best when there’s equal access to the ballot box. Come November, it will be Virginians’ turn to exercise it.


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