MORE THAN two-thirds of the states now allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day and to vote absentee for any reason, including convenience. But Virginia Republicans are refusing to follow suit, despite the scandal of four-hour waits to vote at overwhelmed polling places last November. Perhaps GOP lawmakers in Richmond equate easier voting with unpalatable election results. If so, that’s a flimsy foundation on which to build a political future — and it may not even be true.
This week, bills sponsored by Democrats to expand absentee voting, and allow early voting, failed in the face of almost uniform Republican opposition. GOP lawmakers rejected no-fault absentee voting, which would dispense with the need for an explanation. They also refused to add parents of young children to the list of those allowed to vote absentee, which includes people traveling for business or pleasure, military service members and those suffering from illness or disability.
The lone category of voters that Republicans agreed to make eligible for absentee voting was senior citizens older than 65, a demographic that — surprise! — tends to favor the GOP.
Republicans were traumatized by the presidential election of 2008, in which a massive turnout of early voters favored Barack Obama by nearly 20 percentage points nationally. Mindful of that thrashing, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign invested heavily in turning out early and absentee voters, narrowing the gap considerably (and, in some states, closing it).
Nonetheless, many GOP lawmakers in Congress and state capitals remain skittish of expanding the pool of early and absentee voters, believing, like superannuated generals, that the next war will be a replay of the last. (In a similar vein, Republicans in Richmond have balked at Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s proposal that voting rights be automatically restored to nonviolent felons who have served out their sentences.) In fact, some political scientists doubt that making voting easier will necessarily help Democrats in the future; one leading scholar in the field, Michael McDonald of George Mason University, suggests that the opposite is possible.
Along with their efforts to tighten voter ID requirements, the Republicans’ opposition to early and expanded absentee voting in Virginia has left them in the curious position of seeming hostile to democracy itself. That impression is reinforced by arrogant GOP lawmakers such as Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk, who led the charge against the Democratic bills. “We can’t make a bill to address every issue that someone might have,” he said.
Very well, Mr. Jones. Then don’t be surprised when hundreds of thousands of Virginians, should they again be forced to wait in four-hour lines at the polls, determine that you and your party are largely to blame. In the meantime, perhaps Congress, spurred by inaction in states such as Virginia, will summon the will to mandate universal registration and early and online voting in federal elections.