RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ) - Governor Ralph Northam has approved the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which provides protection against voter suppression, discrimination or intimidation. The approval makes Virginia the first state to enact its own version of a voting rights act.
The governor also made minor technical amendments to Senate Bill 1395 and House Bill 1890, which prohibit any state or local policy from denying or restricting the right to vote of any Virginian based on race, color or membership in a language minority group. The amendments clarify that certain provisions apply to all localities, not just “covered jurisdictions,” according to a release from the governor’s office.
“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” said Governor 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.”
According to the release, the act will restore and build on provisions of the since-gutted 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Since June 2013 - when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a requirement that certain counties and nine states with a history of racial discrimination seek pre-clearance before making voting changes - dozens of states have passed laws restricting voting rights.
“The Voting Rights Act of Virginia is a huge victory for our democracy,” said Senator Jennifer McClellan. “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 new act is designed to prohibit discrimination in elections administration, require local election officials to get feedback or pre-approval for voting changes, and will allow people to sue in instances of voter suppression. Any civil penalties awarded as a result of voter discrimination will go toward the newly-created Voter Education and Outreach Fund.
The voting act will also prohibit at-large local elections if they dilute the voting power of racial minorities. Local election officials will be required to provide voting materials in foreign languages as well, as needed.
“Virginia is standing strong against a coordinated and intentional effort to restrict voting rights across the nation,” said Delegate Cia Price. “These targeted restrictions are designed to disenfranchise people of color, working Americans, and non-native English speakers. With this bill, our Commonwealth is taking the opposite approach and we are making a bold statement against voter suppression. We are upholding the dignity, voice and vote of all Virginians.”
The governor’s office said Northam also approved House Bill 1888 and Senate Bill 1245, which require localities to establish drop-off locations for the return of absentee ballots, including prepaid return postage on absentee ballots and allow voters to fix mistakes made on their envelopes. The bills also ensure that blind of vision-impaired Virginians have the tools they need to vote.
Gov. Northam has until midnight March 31 to act on legislation passed during the 2021 special General Assembly session. Full legislation signed by the governor can be found here.
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