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Peter’s Take: Virginia Democrats Continue to Lead on Voting Reforms

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Historic numbers of Virginians voted in the 2020 Presidential election. Virginia Democratic legislators have introduced important new voting rights legislation which deserves to be enacted. The 2021 Virginia Legislative Session is expected to adjourn about February 28.

Virginia Voting Rights Act

The Virginia Voting Rights Act is a centerpiece of these 2021 Democratic voting reform initiatives:

[I]t is designed to prevent last-minute poll closures and other election changes that could disproportionately affect voters of color. … 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 House of Delegates version of this legislation is HB-1890.

HB-1890 prohibits:

  • any standard, practice, or procedure related to voting from being imposed or applied in a manner that results in the denial or abridgment of the right of any United States citizen to vote based on his race or color or membership in a language minority group.
  • at-large methods of election from being imposed or applied in a locality in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class, defined in the bill, to elect candidates or influence the outcome of an election, by diluting or abridging the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.

Certain unlawful actions, including knowingly communicating false information to voters, that are currently subject to criminal penalties will create civil causes of action under the bill.

The bill also authorizes the Virginia Attorney General to commence civil actions when there is reasonable cause to believe that a violation of an election law has occurred, and the rights of any voter or group of voters have been affected by the violation. Civil penalties are payable into a Voter Education and Outreach Fund established by the bill.

The sponsor of HB-1890, Delegate Cia Price (D-Newport News), noted:

[T]here are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation. …We need to be clear that this is not welcome.

Price also said she has compiled examples of voter suppression ranging from moving polling places off public transit lines, or from a community center to a sheriff’s office.

Absentee voting generally

HB-1888 is an important absentee voting bill which has been approved by the House of Delegates.

HB-1888 requires:

  • drop-off locations for the return of voted absentee ballots.
  • a central absentee voter precinct in each locality.
  • beginning processing absentee ballots in the central absentee voter precincts prior to the close of the polls, but no ballot vote counts are permitted to be transmitted outside of the central absentee voter precinct before the close of the polls.
  • general registrars to report absentee ballots cast early in person separately from all other absentee ballots.
  • a ballot marking tool with screen reader assistive technology to be made available for absentee voters with a print disability.

This bill also requires that a voter who has applied for and received an absentee ballot may choose instead to vote by provisional ballot at her/his polling place on election day.

Local option absentee voting on Sundays

Under HB-1968, each locality (like Arlington) would be given the option to offer in-person absentee voting on Sundays. “It will be less of a burden not only on individuals who are standing in line but also on individuals working in the registrar’s office that are ransacked on Saturday,” said the bill’s sponsor Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico).

Ending Virginia’s automatic lifetime disenfranchisement of felons

In most states, felons automatically regain their voting rights after they’ve completed their sentence. But under current Virginia law, the Governor must take action to restore those rights. Virginia’s current law correctly is considered a relic of a Jim Crow-era system designed to suppress the Black vote.

Governor Northam and several Virginia Democratic legislators are seeking enactment of a Virginia constitutional amendment to adopt the automatic restoration approach.

Conclusion

Democrats led in 2020 by enacting many voting rights laws. In 2021, Democrats have built on this earlier momentum by introducing new bills to expand further the numbers of legally eligible voters. All these new bills should be enacted.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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