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Protesters Call for Voting, Healthcare Reform as Senate Opens

Woman holding sign
Protesters hold a sign outside of the Science Museum of Virginia, where the Virginia Senate opened its 2021 session Wednesday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A coalition of progressive activist groups rallied outside of the Science Museum of Virginia on Wednesday, where the state Senate met for the first day of the General Assembly session. 

While the protest chants might have been similar to those of years past, most everything else about this legislative session has changed because of the pandemic. Along Broad St., demonstrators stood on marked X’s on the sidewalk spaced six feet apart. They demanded an extension to eviction protections, automatic voter rights restoration for felons and access to affordable healthcare for undocumented Virginians.

Richard Walker told the crowd about his felony conviction in the 1990s and unsuccessful application to get his voting rights restored in 2010. 

“There were 13 pieces of paper I had to submit,” he said. “I had to go to Prince William County, where the crime occurred, and get a sentencing order. I had to complete a whole lot of paperwork, and then it got denied.”

Walker applied again in 2012, under Gov. Bob McDonnell, to get his voting rights restored. That time he succeeded. While Governors Terry McCauliffe and Ralph Northam have sought to make applying for rights restoration easier, restoration still requires sign off by the governor’s office.

Walker now runs the non-profit Bridging the Gap, which helps formerly incarcerated people overcome barriers to employment, housing and voting. He said he’s opposed to any new measures that don’t automatically restore voting rights upon release.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia, who are they to decide that you can take my constitutional right from me,” he said. “I think it’s been unfair since I’ve heard of it. Since I came home from prison I’ve been fighting it.”

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) is proposing a constitutional amendment to remove all restrictions on voting for people with felony convictions.

Many of the protesters were Latino Virginians, advocating for better access to affordable healthcare. 

Ingrid Vaca, an undocumented activist with Tenants and Workers United, told the crowd through a translator that many immigrant workers aren’t getting treated for COVID-19 because they don’t have access to affordable healthcare.

“Due to our immigration status, a lot of us fear to even go to the doctor or even go to the ER, because we’re afraid of the bill we are going to receive,” Vaca said.

Many progressive groups supported a proposal from Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) last year that would have provided domestic workers with employment protections against wage theft and discrimination. While McClellan was successful in getting domestic workers included in the state’s minimum wage increase, the bill was amended to send the other workplace protections to a study. McClellan says she will introduce another bill this year to make those protections law. 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story indicated that a 2019 bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan providing workplace protections for domestic workers failed to pass the General Assembly. In fact, it was amended to send the proposal to a work group for future study.

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