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Opinion Distinguished pols of the week: Virginia lawmakers get it right on voting rights

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) State Capitol in Richmond in November 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Americans have grown accustomed to news of states rolling back voting rights. In more than 40 states, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to, among other things, make absentee voting harder, impose tougher ID requirements, limit early voting and clamp down on drop boxes. But there have been some bright lights where Democrats are setting a model for the rest of the country.

Consider Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Wednesday approved the nation’s first state-level voting rights act. The Post reports: “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.” Virginia lawmakers, in other words, are not waiting for Congress to reconstitute the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court gutted in a 2013 case). “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.”

Northam and the Democratic legislation have made Virginia into a “bastion” of voting rights reform, the New York Times reports: “In the last 14 months, the state’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Mr. Northam have together repealed the state’s voter ID law, enacted 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, made Election Day a state holiday and enacted automatic voter registration for anyone who receives a Virginia driver’s license.” These moves build on the work of former Democratic governor and current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who restored voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-felons in the state while has was in office.

How did a state that led the Confederacy and embraced decades of resistance to school segregation laws pull this off? They voted out the Republicans. Democrats now control both houses of the General Assembly and the governorship. Unlike Republicans, Democrats in Virginia want anyone who can legally vote to have easy access to a ballot. Quite a concept — and a contrast with Republicans working overtime in Georgia, Arizona and Texas (to name just three) to throw up barriers to voting.

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Virginia’s breakthrough in voting rights coincided with another historic act: “Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city of Charlottesville can remove statues of two Confederate generals, including one of Robert E. Lee that was at the center of a deadly white nationalist rally in 2017,” the Times reported. What a victory for the new Virginia, a forward-looking, inclusive state that wants to shed its political association with Jim Crow.

The events in Virginia illustrate two critical points with regard to race in America. First, elections matter, and only one party embraces multiracial democratic elections. Put differently, voting for Republicans is in many cases akin voting to undermine our elections.

Second, Congress is the backstop, but it is not the only game in town. If Democrats and civil rights activists turn up the heat in fighting voter suppression at the state level — making clear the GOP will be headed for the political graveyard if they follow Georgia’s example — voters will not be wholly dependent on the Senate to breakdown or work around the filibuster. (By the way, why not move Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game to a state such as Virginia or New Jersey, which is also expanding ballot access?)

For leading on voting reform, repudiating Virginia’s racist past and standing up for democracy, we can say well done to Gov. Northam, Democratic state lawmakers and the state supreme court justices.

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