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Democrats Advance Virginia Voting Rights Act

A voter takes a ballot from an election worker
Backers of the Virginia Voting Rights Act say it's a response to voter suppression -- both accidental and deliberate. Critics say it could prove costly and onerous for localities. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia could be the first state in the South to get its own Voting Rights Act under legislation headed to Gov. Ralph Northam.

The Virginia Voting Rights Act is designed to prevent last-minute poll closures and other election changes that could disproportionately affect voters of color.  The House of Delegates approved the bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) in a party-line vote on Monday. The Senate is set to vote on identical legislation from Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) this week. Backers say it's partly a response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that effectively stripped the federal government's close oversight over elections across the South, including Virginia.

The bills would require election officials to get public comment or approval from the Office of the Attorney General before making changes that affect elections. Citizens or the OAG could also sue if they believe the change disproportionately affects a voter “based on his race or color or membership in a language minority group.” Any earnings from the OAG’s legal actions would go toward a Voter Education and Outreach Fund designed to inform voters about their rights.

Voters could also file civil claims related to voter intimidation and deliberate misinformation “intended to impede the voter in the exercise of his right to vote.” 

McClellan argued the bill had symbolic importance in a state that had some of the tightest Jim Crow-era voting restrictions in the U.S.

“It's poetic justice that we'd be the first state in the South to pass a bill,” McClellan said.

Republican lawmakers have universally voted against the bill. They’ve argued that it would be expensive and time-consuming for local governments to implement. 

“What's now going to be required to that locality is a very, very long, protracted and cumbersome process that requires a 30 day period of public comment,” said Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) in a Senate floor debate earlier this month. “If there's a change, then there's an additional period of public comment. It is going to make it an unwieldy, incredibly complicated process.”

Lobbyists for the Virginia Municipal League have argued against the bill, warning localities could incur costs from litigation. In an interview, McClellan called those concerns “a bit overblown.”

“The cost of disenfranchised voters is greater, particularly for the integrity of our democracy,” she said.

Last year, Democrats in the General Assembly undid GOP laws that they argued were modern incarnations of those policies, including mandatory photo IDs and limited absentee voting. 

Northam’s spokesperson, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor looked forward to reviewing the bill.

“Governor Northam is committed to protecting and expanding Virginians' right to vote,” she said in an email.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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