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Northam supports Virginia Voting Rights Act, paid sick leave for home health workers and host of other measures at deadline for action

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has acted on 522 pieces of legislation from this year’s General Assembly session, and issued no vetoes.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has acted on 522 pieces of legislation from this year’s General Assembly session, and issued no vetoes. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has given preliminary approval to a Voting Rights Act that would make Virginia one of the first states in the country to enshrine protections against efforts to restrict access to polling places at a time when other states are considering limits on the ability to vote.

Northam (D) approved it Wednesday amid a flurry of bill signings and amendments at the deadline for him to act on measures passed during this year’s General Assembly session. He suggested technical amendments to the voting bill that the legislature will have to approve before the measure becomes law.

Northam also signed into law a bill requiring Virginia schools to offer a full schedule of in-person instruction as of July 1, opting not to include an emergency clause that would have put the law into effect immediately. Northam had called for all schools to have a plan for reopening from the pandemic shutdown by March 15; the new law ensures that they will offer primarily in-person instruction for summer and fall.

Republicans had been pushing to speed up the process, but Northam and other Democrats argued that schools need time to prepare.

In all, Northam acted on 522 pieces of legislation, including extending paid sick leave to home health-care workers, restricting guns from polling places and extending eviction protections as the coronavirus pandemic continues to restrict the economy.

He issued no vetoes.

After two years of consolidated control of state government, Democrats have remade Virginia’s public policy landscape, which had been dominated by Republican legislatures for a generation. This year the General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty, which Northam signed into law, and legalize marijuana, which Northam has proposed amending to speed up the legalization of small amounts for personal use.

Virginia lawmakers reach deal on marijuana legalization as General Assembly winds down ambitious session

The General Assembly will take up amendments proposed by Northam during a one-day reconvened session April 7.

The bills he signed into law Wednesday, all of which will take effect July 1, included:

●A ban on firearms within 40 feet of a polling place or a meeting of the electoral board as it certifies the results of an election.

●A “ban the box” bill for public colleges and universities, preventing them from asking an applicant about criminal records during the admissions process or denying admission based on criminal history.

●Requiring employers to provide paid sick leave for home health-care workers who are hired through Medicaid.

●Expanding the Virginia Court of Appeals to 17 judges from 11 and establishing a right of repeal in all civil cases.

●Extending through July 1, 2022, a moratorium on evictions for renters who are suffering financial hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic.

●Eliminating the “gay/trans panic” defense in murder and assault cases, meaning that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity cannot, on its own or in concert with a sexual advance, be considered justification for violence.

Northam restores voting rights for 69,000 with felony convictions

Northam proposed amendments on several bills, including:

●A ban on law enforcement departments using facial recognition technology unless specifically permitted by the General Assembly. Northam proposed an amendment making it clear that there is an exception for airport security efforts. He declined to offer an amendment requiring that the legislature reenact the measure next year, which some law enforcement interests had requested.

●A ban on firearms in the state Capitol, Capitol Square and state-owned buildings. Northam proposed an amendment adding an exception for magistrates.

The changes Northam proposed to the Virginia Voting Rights Act are not substantial, the governor’s office said, and simply correct technical language in the bill.

The measure prohibits localities from changing the location of a polling place without getting clearance in advance or from enacting any policy that restricts access to voting based on someone’s race or language.

Sponsored by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), the act puts into state law components of the federal Voting Rights Act. Virginia was among a handful of states with a history of racial discrimination in voting that had been subject to federal review under the provisions of the act. That supervision was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.