By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
State Senator Jennifer T. McClellan and Delegate Marcia Price are spearheading bills this legislative session to safeguard voting rights in Virginia, especially for Black and minority people. It is called the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of Virginia.
The legislation provides protections for African Americans and other minority voters.
This legislation would make permanent changes to the state’s election process put in place temporarily before the 2020 General Elections, including ballot drop boxes and prepaid postage on mail ballots.
McClellan and Price sponsored separate bills in their respective bodies, but the goals and the protections are identical and will be merged eventually.
While McClellan’s bill was passed by the Senate and will soon be signed by the Governor, in the House, Price’s Bill is expecting final action this week.
The Bills are designed to provide protections lost when in 2013, the United States Supreme Court, nullified Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.
Considered the teeth of the VRA, Section 4 required states to submit changes to their voting systems to the U.S. Justice Department for pre-clearance, to see if they were biased against minorities in seven southern states, including Virginia. These states, including Virginia, had the most oppressive voting rights laws during the period of Jim Crow segregation.
Civil rights activists believe the court ruling gutted the VRA, opening the door for states, especially in the South with large Black populations, to implement laws to deter them from voting.
While the U.S. House of Representatives passed a voting rights bill in honor of the late Congressman John Lewis which would restore the clause to the VRA, a Republican-controlled Senate ignored it.
The Virginia VRA bill would also require localities to give the public 30 days to comment on proposed changes to voting — including moving polling places, closing a precinct, or even curtailing interpreting services.
An emergency, such as inclement weather, would allow a locality to avoid this requirement. The locality could also seek a waiver from the Attorney General’s Office.
The bill would require that localities offer to vote materials in different languages when their boundaries contain a sizable population whose primary language is not English. U.S. law requires it for federal elections, but the bill would guarantee it for local elections, too.
The Virginia VRA would expand the ability of advocates to sue the state or localities for infringing on a voter’s rights — allowing not just the impacted voter, but also civil rights groups, to make legal challenges.
Price said that voters who face disenfranchisement often do not have the means to take their cases to court to seek a reprieve.
McClellan said the bill is “poetic justice” for a Southern state that was both the birthplace of American democracy and slavery.
“We’ve seen across the South efforts to make it harder for people to vote, and that harms people of color more than anybody,” said McClellan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
Republicans broadly opposed the legislation.
For instance, Republican State Senator Sen. Jill Vogel, of Fauquier County, said the bill creates an “unwieldy and incredibly complicated” process for localities to make changes to their elections.
Virginia’s reforms arrive at a time when 23 Republican-controlled states are proposing laws to deliberately reduce the number of voters, especially African American, from voting.
Republicans claim the laws are designed to deter fraud.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 253 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 704 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
African American voters helped Joe Biden claim the White House with a huge and well-planned turnout in Georgia. They also helped two Democrats, for the first time in three decades win the state’s U.S. Senate seats and allowed the party to take control of the U.S. Senate.