Virginia Voting Rights Act passes as Supreme Court case threatens federal protections

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As the federal Voting Rights Act faces another threat in the U.S. Supreme Court, a bill to strengthen protections against discrimination, suppression and intimidation in Virginia is headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

On Tuesday, the high court heard arguments in a case challenging two Arizona laws that restrict ballot collection and penalize people who vote in the wrong precinct.

Advocates fear the case will allow the conservative-leaning bench to further weaken the landmark voting rights law, opening the door for Republican-led states to institute increasingly restrictive policies in the wake of a contentious election season.

In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted what many regarded as the main enforcement tool in the federal Voting Rights Act. The section required states to get advanced approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to elections. Now, another section allowing discriminatory regulations to be challenged after a new rule is in place is under siege.

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the single most effective nationwide tool that we have to protect against voting discrimination and voter suppression and there’s a serious chance that it could sustain terrible damage in today’s case,” said Advancement Project Attorney Jess Unger.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said the uncertainty surrounding federal protections makes the passage of the Voting Rights Act of Virginia even more important.

“Before 1965, you had poll taxes and literacy tests designed to keep black people from voting,” said McClellan. “We’re now the first state in the south, which has a history of voter disenfranchisement, to proactively protect the right to vote. That’s critically important if the federal act is not reauthorized or is further gutted by the Supreme Court.”

The bill requires Virginia localities to give at least 30 days notice in advance of possible election changes with an opportunity for public comment. It also mandates a waiting period after that process is complete, though there are exceptions for emergencies.

As an alternative, localities could ask the Attorney General to review and approve proposed changes.

McClellan said the bill mandates these steps for any case that could have an adverse impact on Black, Indigenous and communities of color. She said this could include the moving or closing of a polling location, as well as any limitation on hours.

Furthermore, the legislation requires localities to provide voting materials in languages other than English for all elections and prohibits the use of an at-large voting system if it could dilute the voices of a protected class.

Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News), who sponsored the bill in the House, said another section authorizes the AG or affected individuals to initiate civil action in court if these protections are violated. She said that’s not currently allowed.

“That I think is the biggest step forward,” Price said.

Price said the Voting Rights Act of Virginia goes a long way to sure up protections at the local level. However, she emphasized a robust federal law is necessary to ensure these standards are followed across the country and to defend against possible future efforts to pass restrictive laws statewide.

“I think the sentiment behind the Voting Rights Act of Virginia was more locally focused because the state-level bills were moving in the right direction,” Price said. “We need the federal courts to go our way in order to protect us from laws that would take us back.”

Several efforts by Virginia’s GOP to restrict voting access failed in the 2021 session, as Republicans are currently in the minority. The party largely argued that these measures are essential to restore confidence in elections after the coronavirus pandemic prompted states to loosen some regulations.

Ultimately, Virginia’s Voting Rights Act passed in the General Assembly without any Republican support.

Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) said the bill makes it unnecessarily difficult for localities to make changes and opens election officials up to potentially costly litigation without knowingly discriminating against a protected class.

“It is going to make it an unwieldy and incredibly complicated process,” Vogel said during a floor debate. “It’s going to require so much litigation for our localities that it is going to cause a tremendous amount of disruption.”

In a statement, Gov. Northam’s office said that he is “committed to protecting and expanding Virginians’ right to vote” and that he looks forward to reviewing the bill.

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