This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
As we probably learned and as we teach our children, voting is the most important of civic duties. By choosing our leaders at election time and by deciding questions on referenda, we set the direction for our communities, states, and nation. Voting is a way to express our values and beliefs.
In one of the contradictions that strain the legitimacy of what we teach vs. what we do is to teach our children, proclaim in civic pronouncements and require for Scouting citizenship merit badges an acknowledgement of the importance of voting while at the same time making it difficult and sometimes impossible for some people to vote.
During the colonial period and early years of the state of Virginia, only white land-owners could vote. The Reconstruction era after the Civil War brought Black men into the electorate, but in a matter of decades that free access to voting was cut off by white supremacists who reasserted their power. An avowed purpose of writing a new constitution in 1902 was to disenfranchise Black men. It was successful in that the voting rolls were cut in half as most Blacks and poor whites were not able to make their way through the maze of requirements that one had to meet in order to vote. A blank sheet registration system and a $1.50 poll tax to be paid three years in a row at least six months before an election kept many from voting. White people in the upper crust of local society made it through these hurdles as the voting registrar who was part of the governing machine would provide them assistance while everyone else floundered at trying to get through the process.
Regardless of their race, women in this country have been able to vote for just over a hundred years, and that right came after incredible struggle. The Civil Rights era and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened up the electoral process for many Black people. Even now there are debates in the states about ways that access to the polls can be limited.
The Virginia General Assembly has put the Commonwealth on the path to supporting citizens carrying out their civic duty with several of the most progressive voting laws in the country. A headline in the New York Times last week proclaimed that “Virginia, the Old Confederacy’s Heart, Becomes a Voting Rights Bastion.” Over a fourteen-month period and two legislative sessions the General Assembly has passed and the Governor has signed bills to repeal a voter ID law, enact a 45-day no-excuse absentee voting period that permits early voting, made Election Day a holiday, and established a system for automatic voter registration for anyone who receives a Virginia driver’s license. The Virginia Voting Rights Act follows some of the provisions of the earlier federal law but applies to localities in the state to ensure that voting remains accessible.
In Virginia we will continue to say that voting is one of the most important of our civic duties, and now we will have a legal structure that demonstrates we believe it!
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