The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy, and Virginia voters deserve every opportunity to participate in elections.

A recent study by the Election Law Journal calls out Virginia as the second-most difficult state in which to vote, due to such factors as limits on absentee voting, lack of early voting, limited poll hours and voter identification requirements. The Virginia General Assembly is considering several bills that would make it easier for voters to exercise their right to vote through absentee ballots, and while Virginia clearly has a long way to go, any laws that increase access to the polls and eliminates discriminatory voting practices is a step in the right direction.

Currently, Virginia only allows excuse-based absentee voting, and to cast an absentee ballot, voters are required to list unrelated personal information to prove the validity of the excuse. Handing over this personal information (such as travel plans, pregnancy or disability status) can be risky, because there are no assurances that it will be held confidential and secure. This is especially true considering that an absentee voting application is a public record that can be viewed by anyone who asks to see it.

Excuse-based absentee voting also doesn’t give allowances for people who can’t easily make it to the poll on election day. The list of “acceptable” excuses doesn’t include such barriers as unreliable transportation, inflexible work schedule, or childcare responsibilities. Prioritizing some excuses over others elevates certain classes of voters, and unsurprisingly, minority and rural communities are often most affected by these excuse restrictions.

“No-excuse” absentee voting – meaning voters can cast absentee ballots for any reason, both in person and by mail – is an easy solution that would give all Virginia voters equal access to absentee ballots. Allowing no-excuse absentee voting would relieve some pressure on polling locations on election day, maintain the privacy of voters by not requiring personal disclosures, and give more accessibility to voters. It’s a win-win solution for election officials and voters.

Several bills have been introduced into the General Assembly – HB 1641, SB 1026 and SB 1035 – to allow no-excuse absentee voting in person or by mail. Others have been introduced that would allow no-excuse absentee voting in person, but not by mail. This is a positive expansion, of course, but it wouldn’t do enough to help those voters who need help the most. In-person limits on voting may exclude voters based on lack of transportation, geography, income status, physical disabilities, and the constraints of busy modern-day life. Any legislation on no-excuse absentee voting needs to include in-person and by mail options; otherwise it won’t be fair to all Virginia voters.

The right to vote is essential in this country, and our government should afford its citizens every opportunity to exercise that right. The more people vote, the healthier our democracy will be. Virginia has shameful laws limiting access to the polls, and it is past time to give all voters the chance to mail or hand in an absentee ballot. Virginians should continue to push for less discriminatory voting practices and more access to the polls.

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