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The most sacred right of a citizen of our democratic republic is the right to vote. To select people to serve as our elected representatives from city councils and boards of supervisors to state legislatures, all the way up to Congress and the White House, is a civic duty. The right to vote is fundamental to who we are — and want to be — as a nation.

In the early days of our republic, the right to vote was restricted to white, male property owners. Enslaved Africans, in a deal to lure enough of the 13 states to ratify the new U.S. Constitution, were counted as three-fifths of a person for determining how many seats a state would get in the House of Representatives. It would be almost two centuries before their descendants would gain access to the ballot.

The 15th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, theoretically recognized the right of African Americans to vote, but it wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 that the federal government began to enforce the law. Women, even if they owned property in their own names (which itself was rare), only got to the right to vote 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment passed.

Part of the American voting experience is not having to disclose for whom you cast your ballot. We believe that extends to why you wish to vote absentee.

Legislation moving through the General Assembly sponsored by state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, would allow for no-excuse absentee voting. Currently, voters must stipulate one of about 20 reasons why they cannot physically show up at the polls to cast ballots.

The enumerated reasons include attending college outside the voter’s registered address; having personal business or being away on vacation on Election Day; pregnancy; and working or commuting during the time when polls are open. It’s a legal document, signed under pain of perjury.

A vote is a right, and not a privilege. Virginia is among 20 states that still require voters to provide an approved excuse to vote by absentee ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But say you don’t want to deal with crowds at your polling place. Or you’re not sure whether you’re going to be in town. Or there’s some other reason that doesn’t fall under the state’s list. Why should voters even have to provide a reason? It is no one else’s business.

Virginia should be encouraging its citizens to participate in the democratic process, not asking them to explain themselves.

—Pamela Stallsmith

(Portions of this editorial first appeared in the Danville Register & Bee.)

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