By Sara Fitzgerald
The restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic are refocusing attention on steps that can — and may have to be — taken to ensure that our coming elections remain fair and open.
As Virginians, we can be grateful that we were able to conduct the March 3 Democratic presidential primary before restrictions had to be imposed. Because Falls Church decided a few years ago to move its municipal elections to November, it won’t face the challenge that some jurisdictions will in holding their local elections in May. But U.S. House and Senate candidates may face primary battles on June 9.
Allison J. Robbins, president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, and Barbara Tabb, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, recently asked State Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper to take steps to protect both voters and election officials by promoting absentee voting by mail in these next two elections and shutting down most in-person voting. A decision is expected shortly. Dave Bjerke, director of elections for Falls Church, who serves on the registrars’ legislative committee, noted that many municipalities are now having to process a much higher volume of absentee ballot applications for their May elections at a time when their government offices are closed.
In its 2020 session, the Virginia General Assembly passed several measures that were designed to make it easier to vote. As of this writing, the measures are awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature; he is expected to sign them, but the legislation could still be modified, particularly in light of the new challenges that officials face.
The first would implement “no-excuse absentee voting.” In the past, persons seeking to cast absentee ballots in Virginia had to specify one of 20-some reasons why they could not vote the traditional way. Under the new legislation, they would no longer have to do so. The State Department of Elections’ online application form at www.elections.virginia.gov/casting-a-ballot/absentee-voting/ has already been modified for those wanting to request an absentee ballot this spring because of the coronavirus.
The General Assembly passed additional legislation, also awaiting the governor’s signature, that would relax the requirements for voters to produce a photo ID before they are permitted to vote. Legislation also passed that would designate Election Day as a state holiday. Looking further down the road, the General Assembly also approved legislation that, if signed by the governor, would permit Virginians to register to vote on Election Day, starting on Oct. 1, 2022.
Ensuring the security of voting equipment and reporting networks continues to be a concern. Bjerke said that because many local registrars are working from home these days, the state Department of Elections has instituted new protocols for accessing its databases.
Another important aspect of promoting fair voting is ensuring that every U.S. resident is counted so that congressional and legislative districts can be drawn to reflect current population numbers. The decennial census determines how many congressional seats each state gets, how congressional and legislative districts are drawn, and, in many cases, how federal and state funds are allocated. If you have missed the mailed invitation from the U.S. Census Bureau to respond, go to 2020census.gov/en/ways-to-respond.html to find out how your household can be counted.
Next November Virginia voters will get the chance to take another important step to help preserve our democracy. In the closing days of this year’s session, the General Assembly approved on second reading a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan commission of citizens and legislators to redraw congressional and legislative districts after the census is completed. Now the voters will be asked to give their final approval.
Ten years ago, Republicans succeeded in gerrymandering the Virginia House of Delegates and Democrats did the same thing for the Senate, which they then controlled. Efforts to develop alternative maps, through hearings by a citizens’ advisory committee and college competitions, were for naught. After that experience, concerned Virginians launched a decade-long campaign to reform the redistricting process.
The constitutional amendment was supported by a wide range of interest groups, including the League of Women Voters, as well as editorial boards across the Commonwealth. Since the amendment’s passage, redistricting reform advocates around the country have also hailed it. Earlier this week a member of the New York Times’s editorial board praised the nine House Democrats who “agreed to put down their partisan swords and join the Republicans to support the new amendment,” noting how rare it was for politicians to be willing to relinquish their partisan power for the greater good. The writer said, “It may take more work to win elections by listening to what voters actually want than by simply rigging the maps, but it’s a critical step to save our representative democracy.”
Now, more than ever before, it’s important that we all do what is necessary to stay informed — and to continue to be actively engaged in our democratic processes.
Sara Fitzgerald is a member of the League of Women Voters of Falls Church.