Nearly eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, Democrats in Virginia are poised to enact state-level legislation they say would boost voter protections.
Backers of the Virginia Voting Rights Act say it’s the most comprehensive bill of its kind — and the first in the South. The legislation cleared a final vote on Thursday and now goes to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
“As we’ve seen on other issues, we can’t rely on the Supreme Court or the federal level always, and so states have to protect themselves,” said Democratic state Del. Cia Price, one of two sponsors of the legislation.
Price’s bill was inspired by portions of the federal Voting Rights Act that were altered by a 2013 high court ruling. Until that decision, the federal government scrutinized proposed changes to voting across nine mostly Southern states, including Virginia, and a handful of other cities and counties with a history of racial discrimination.
The Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for election law changes across the South. Republican-led legislatures rushed to pass restrictions that no longer required federal approval. States purged voter rolls, added photo ID requirements, and cut nearly 1,700 polling locations, per one tally. Many states have sought to double-down on restrictive voting rules in the aftermath of the November 2020 election.
Price’s bill builds on the old federal process. It would require local election officials to get public feedback — or permission from Virginia’s attorney general — before they change voting rules. Voters or the attorney general could sue if they believe the change disproportionately affects a voter “based on his race or color or membership in a language minority group.” Any proceeds from the legal actions would go toward a voter education fund.
The legislation would require election officials to provide voting materials in foreign languages in districts with substantial populations of people whose primary language is not English. It also would prohibit at-large municipal elections if they have the effect of diluting the voting power of racial minorities.
Virginia Republicans have consistently voted against the bill in the state legislature. They’ve echoed complaints by representatives of local governments who are concerned about the potential costs of litigation and extra workload.
“It is going to make it an unwieldy, incredibly complicated process,” warned state Sen. Jill Vogel, who’s also a GOP election attorney. “It is a full employment act for lawyers.”
Some local officials — particularly Democrats — have dismissed those concerns.
“It’s not like we’re changing elections all the time,” said Justin Wilson, the Democratic mayor of the city of Alexandria. “Protecting the franchise is probably the most important thing we can do.”
There has been some movement on Capitol Hill in the wake of the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case. Democrats in the House passed legislation in 2019 that would address issues raised by the Supreme Court. It would update the formula used to determine which areas should be covered by so-called “preclearance.”
But the bill — now named after the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. — went untouched in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate. It remains unclear if any Republicans, who almost universally opposed the House measure, would join Democrats to clear the 60-vote filibuster now that Democrats hold a narrow majority.
Republicans in many state legislatures have pushed to tighten voting rules in the wake of an election that saw the highest voter turnout in 120 years. Democrats in Virginia have moved the opposition direction, adding optional Sunday voting and making ballot drop boxes permanent. The commonwealth has gone from one of the hardest states to vote in to one of the easiest, after Democrats flipped the legislature in 2019, according to a ranking from researchers at Northern Illinois University.
“I think it’s obvious that Democrats want to loosen the rules that assisted them in the last election and that so greatly contributed to undermining confidence in the election,” Republican Todd Gilbert, the minority leader in Virginia’s House, said in a press conference last month.
Voting rights advocates say Republicans are harnessing their own false claims about voter fraud to advance restricting voting policies.
Judith Browne Dianis — executive director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that helped craft the Virginia VRA — said the GOP’s push reflects a broader anxiety about the growing clout of nonwhite voters.
“We need every state to pass its own voting rights law,” Dianis said.
California, Washington and Oregon have passed narrower state-level voting rights acts focused on local elections.
Virginia had some of the tightest Jim Crow-era voting restrictions in the U.S. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who also sponsored the Virginia Voting Rights Act, said the effort reflected broader shifts in what has become a reliably blue state.
“It’s poetic justice that we’d be the first state in the South to pass a bill,” McClellan said.