This places additional pressure on Democrats to work to expand voting rights wherever possible. And in Virginia, a measure just moved forward that will test how effectively Democrats can do this.
The bill codifies prohibitions against any voting rules changes by localities that result in the “denial or abridgment” of the right to vote based on race or color, and it empowers the state attorney general to challenge a change made by a locality if he or she has cause to believe it would have a disenfranchising effect. It also requires changes to be opened up for a long public-comment period, among other things.
“My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents faced literacy tests and poll taxes,” Virginia state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, the sponsor of the bill, said in an emailed statement. “Now it’s time for Virginia to take action to protect voting rights for generations to come.”
“Our democracy is strongest when everyone is able to participate,” added Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News), the bill’s sponsor in the Virginia House.
What makes this interesting is that it’s a state-level effort to fill the hole created when the Supreme Court gutted the component of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring certain states and localities to gain federal preclearance for voting-law changes.
The crucial point here is that Democrats cannot count on this being corrected on the federal level anytime soon. Congressional Democrats have coalesced around reforms that would expand voting access and place limits on state-level voter-suppression efforts and gerrymandering — and would restore the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act.
“I don’t think states should sit back and wait for Congress to take action,” Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me. “This should be equally urgent in Congress and in the states.”
You might think such a move would not be necessary in Virginia, where Democrats control state government. But the new measure would make it harder for local officials to pursue disenfranchising voting changes, too. And if Republicans retake state government at some point, this law might provide another hurdle to their future voter-suppression efforts.
In a useful Twitter thread, voting-rights reporter Ari Berman listed some of the voter-suppression measures that Republicans have already launched in numerous states, even before the ink has dried on the indictments of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol to overturn the election.
These include onerous new voter ID laws; efforts to roll back measures facilitating vote-by-mail; and even allowing GOP legislatures to subvert the popular vote in their states by appointing separate presidential electors.
“As the GOP becomes increasingly radicalized and doubles down on anti-democratic tactics, Democrats have to be as aggressive in expanding voting rights as Republicans are in suppressing voting rights,” Berman, who wrote a book on the history of the struggle over voting, told me.
“In states they control, Democrats should be enacting policies like automatic and Election Day registration, expanded early voting and mail-in voting, independent redistricting commissions, and state versions of the Voting Rights Act,” Berman continued.
With the GOP radicalizing at breakneck speed in its pursuit of counter-majoritarian and anti-democratic tactics, Democrats absolutely must be prepared to do away with the filibuster if it prevents them from passing federal reforms. But they need to ratchet things up in the states, too. This must be an all-hands-on-deck effort. The stakes are extraordinarily high.