POWHATAN – Governor Ralph Northam last week announced he has approved the Voting Rights Act of Virginia to provide comprehensive protections against voter suppression, discrimination, or intimidation.
Northam made minor technical amendments to Senate Bill 1395, sponsored by Senator Jennifer McClellan, and House Bill 1890, sponsored by Delegate Marcia Price, which prohibit any state or local policy from denying or restricting the right to vote of any Virginian simply because of their race, color, or membership in a language minority group, according to a release from his office on March 31. Virginia is the first state in the nation to enact its own version of a voting rights act.
“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” said Northam. “With the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections. I am proud to support this historic legislation, and I urge Congress to follow Virginia’s example.”
Karen Alexander, Powhatan’s director of elections, said she is still waiting on more detailed instructions from the state to know the potential impacts of the voting rights act.
“We don’t know specifically how it is going to affect us yet, but in regard to providing nondiscriminatory voting opportunities to all residents, that is not going to change because we have always provided that,” she said.
Currently, Alexander said her biggest concerns are the unknowns. The governor made the announcement to everyone at the same time, and voter registrar offices across the state are waiting for the specifics about how the changes will be administered, she said.
Much like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act proposed at the federal level, the Virginia law will restore and build on provisions of the since-gutted 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, according to the governor’s office. In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down the requirement that several counties and nine states with a history of racial discrimination—including Virginia—seek pre-clearance before making voting changes. Since that time, dozens of states have considered and passed new laws that restrict voting rights, the release said.
“The Voting Rights Act of Virginia is a huge victory for our democracy,” McClellan said in the release. “While other states are threatening voting rights, Virginia took a major step today to protect the right to vote. I am proud that our Commonwealth is leading the way, becoming the first state in the South to pass a Voting Rights Act. This law will help to safeguard every Virginian’s access to the ballot for generations to come.”
The Voting Rights Act of Virginia prohibits discrimination in elections administration, requires local election officials to get feedback or pre-approval for voting changes, and allows individuals to sue in cases of voter suppression, according to the release. It requires localities seek public comment or pre-approval from the Office of the Attorney General on any proposed voting changes and empowers voters and/or the attorney general to sue in cases of voter suppression. Civil penalties awarded as a result of voting discrimination will go toward a new Voter Education and Outreach Fund.
The pre-approval process to make voting changes is one area where Alexander said she could see the most potential strain on localities like Powhatan, depending on the guidelines established by the state.
“Any time we make a change, we go through the state to make sure they are aware of the changes we are making and to make sure they meet guidelines. However, depending on what their approval process is going to be, it could restrict our ability to make emergency changes if necessary,” Alexander said.
She gave the example of a voting precinct experiencing an emergency such as busted pipes leading to flooding a week before an election, making it necessary to change locations abruptly.
“Currently we would make ELECT aware of that change and we would do our due diligence to get the word out. I am not sure how this new legislation is going to change our ability to make those decisions quickly and if it could slow us down in making these necessary changes,” she said. “So there is still a lot for us to wait to see whether it really is a safeguard or if it is a Big Brother watching process where we are going to be limited in our scope to serve the way we know we need to serve our residents.”
As far as the fear of lawsuits, Alexander said she hopes it is not a hurdle to recruiting poll workers. However, she said she doesn’t have any worries about the measures to protect against voter suppression, which is not an issue in Powhatan.
“We never tell anyone that they cannot vote. We will redirect people or offer provisional ballots, but we never tell anyone that they cannot vote,” she said.
The Voting Rights Act of Virginia prohibits at-large local elections if they dilute the voting power of racial minorities, according to the governor’s office. It also ensures accessibility by requiring local election officials provide voting materials in foreign languages, as needed.
Powhatan currently offers ballots only in English, but Alexander said they do have access to some election documents in other languages if a resident requests them, which has not happened yet.
The governor is also approved two additional bills that build on the Commonwealth’s efforts to ensure all Virginians had equitable access to the ballot box during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the release. These measures require localities to establish drop off locations for the return of absentee ballots, include prepaid return postage on absentee ballots, and allow voters to fix mistakes they may have made on their absentee ballot envelopes. These bills also ensure Virginians who are blind or vision impaired have the tools they need to cast their vote.
Alexander said Powhatan already offers all these things. The office has had a drop box location in place since June 2020. Powhatan also provided prepaid return postage, allowing voters to fix mistakes on absentee ballot envelopes, and vision impaired assistance with ballots began being offered in September 2020 for the presidential election, she said.
HB 1890 passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 1 in a 55-45 vote and the state Senate on Feb. 25 in a 21-18 vote. SB 1395, which is identical to HB 1890, passed the House with the same vote on Feb. 15 and the Senate in a 21-17 vote on Feb. 5.
Powhatan’s elected officials in the General Assembly were on opposite sides on this particular issue. Del. Lee Ware, R-65, voted against both bills in the House, while State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, voted for them in the Senate.
Ware said that despite its appealing name, the Virginia Voting Rights Act “belies its costly, divisive, and onerous provisions.” He argued the law does not enhance voting for citizens but instead designates a protected class of voters and institutes an array of provisions for them.
“It then makes violations of this array of provisions – some vague and unclear, others minutely prescriptive – punishable by a $50,000 fine, a Class 1 Misdemeanor (the highest category of misdemeanor) and authorizes the attorney general to sue local governments,” Ware said.
The original federal Voting Rights Act was aimed at practices that wrongly prevented black people from voting, Ware said. The new Virginia law micromanages election administration, subjects hard-working elections officials in the Commonwealth to the prospect of expensive and lengthy litigation, and does so in a way that heightens divisions based on race and “language minority groups.” He pointed out that the bill specifically addresses and applies to only “citizens protected from discrimination based on race or color or membership in a language minority group.”
Ware also brought up the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the federal Voting Rights Act, which required states to obtain federal permission before enacting any law relating to voting. The 2013 ruling said that the “conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
Hashmi said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was revolutionary because it protected at the federal level violations that had occurred historically throughout the country in preventing so many people from their legitimate access to the ballot. When the federal law was “gutted” in 2013, it “put vulnerable communities back in the position of having to fight every step of the way to protect their access to the ballot.”
Hashmi pointed to situations in other states such as recent measures in Georgia to add new identification requirements for absentee voting and increasing the oversight the state legislature has on how elections are run. She called Virginia’s law a way to protect the rights of all citizens to make sure voting is as accessible and broad as possible and make sure what is happening in other states doesn’t happen here.
If Virginia doesn’t have the legal restrictions in place to ensure that every voter has the right to cast a ballot, “we face the concern of bringing back these kinds of Draconian restrictions on voting access,” she said.
As far as fears about the restrictions on localities and election officials, Hashmi said the language regarding getting approval for broad level changes replicates what was in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and was used successfully at the federal level until 2013.
“Because the federal level is no longer providing that kind of protection for voters, the state is now stepping into do that. So Virginia has those protections built back into the system once again,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.