After historic voting reforms, Virginians have unprecedented access to the polls The changes, led by Black lawmakers, have rocketed Virginia from the 49th to 12th place in "ease of voting."
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After historic voting reforms, Virginians have unprecedented access to the polls

Voters in Virginia are choosing candidates in all three statewide offices, along with all 100 House of Delegates members. Penn State/Flickr / https://n.pr/3BujsLe hide caption

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Penn State/Flickr / https://n.pr/3BujsLe

The past two years have drastically altered the landscape for voting rights in Virginia, including a host of accommodations put in place during the pandemic. And during November's gubernatorial election, voters will see the effects of recent legislation passed by the Democratic General Assembly, including making some of those pandemic-era changes permanent.

Voters are no longer required to present a photo ID to vote, can vote absentee without an excuse, and starting next year, will be allowed to register and vote on the same day. Legislators also passed the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, sweeping legislation that aims to prevent voter discrimination by local election officials.

Virginia's legislation passed as other southern states like Georgia and Texas sought to create more restrictive voting laws. Expanding voting rights was a top legislative priority for Democrats, who since 2019 have had a slight majority in the General Assembly and control of all three statewide offices. It's a stark change from the not-too-distant past in the commonwealth. Virginia's elections were overseen by the federal government under the Civil Rights Act for decades due to widespread racial discrimination and voter suppression.

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The changes came despite opposition from many Virginia Republicans, who cite the potential for voter fraud. The expansion of voting rights has become a campaign issue in the governor's race, with Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin promising to create an "election integrity task force." On his campaign Website, he outlines a five-point plan that includes updating voter rolls monthly and "strengthening Virginia's voter identification" across all methods of voting. Youngkin has repeatedly called for audits of voting machines, to "make sure people trust" the process (audits are already routine, and a statewide audit was conducted of the 2020 election).

Meanwhile, Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports the expansion of voting rights. He says he'll also work to make restoration of voting rights for people with have finished their felony sentences automatic.

A history of disenfranchisement

The changes have garnered headlines in the New York Times like, "Virginia, the Old Confederacy's Heart, Becomes a Voting Rights Bastion."

Virginia Tech Political Science Professor Brandy Faulkner says the transformation of the southern state was a fast turnaround.

"What we've seen in Virginia over the past couple of years is quite remarkable," Faulkner said. "The state has gone from being a leader and model for voter suppression to being a leader and model for voter protection and expansion.

"And that is not insignificant in a place like Virginia."

She says the history goes back to the end of the Civil War and the 15th Amendment to the constitution in 1870 that ensured formerly enslaved people had the right to vote.

"But there was immediate pushback from the states and they fought it for so many years and took drastic measures to be sure that voting remained exclusive to those who were part of the white race," Faulkner said. "It culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which took away some of the barriers to voting... things like poll taxes and literacy tests."

Indeed, Virginia has a dark history of making it harder for people of color to vote, says Tram Ngyuen, co-director of the New Virginia Majority.

"It's embedded in our state constitution with the permanent disenfranchisement of folks that are in prison," Ngyuen said.

But in recent years, the Commonwealth has shot up on the list of states that make it easy to vote. A Northern Illinois University study has Virginia moving from 49th place to 12th place in 2020, the largest jump of any state. The study looked at each state's rules and assigned points for registration deadlines, having online or same-day registration, and automatic voter registration. It also looked at voter ID laws, early voting, and mail-in voting rules.

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of Virginia in 2021, Faulkner expects the commonwealth could rank even higher this year, but the university isn't doing the analysis again until next year.

Black legislators led charge for change

Most of Virginia's voting rights bills have come from Black Democrats in the General Assembly, led by Sens. Jennifer McClellan, Mamie Locke, and Louise Lucas and Dels. Marcia "Cia" Price, Joshua Cole, Lamont Bagby, Charniele Herring, and former Del. Joe Lindsay. Others, including white legislators like Sens. David Marsden, Janet Howell, and Del. Mark Sickles, have also sponsored voting bills.

The Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which was sponsored by Del. Price, prohibits racial discrimination and voter intimidation and mandates local election officials get public or attorney general approval before changing things like polling places. It also gives Virginians the power to sue over cases of voter suppression. Civil penalties awarded as a result of voting discrimination will go towards a newly-established Voter Education and Outreach Fund.

The law requires a 30-day public comment period ahead of changes and a 30-day waiting period for someone affected by the change to challenge it in court. It also requires election officials to provide materials in foreign languages that are prevalent in their area.

"We want to support everything we can do, to make sure people support democracy, and exercise their right to vote," Gov. Ralph Northam said when he signed the bill in September.

Much of the legislation was in response to the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that struck down key parts of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nine states had been subject to its provisions, including Virginia.

Ngyuen advocated for Virginia's Voting Rights Act and helped shape the bill. She says seemingly innocuous changes in Georgia, like moving polling places off bus routes, have a big effect on some voters' ability to get to the polls. The new Virginia law gives the public more oversight over local elections officials.

"It really protects the right of people who've been disenfranchised in the past," she said. "So people of color, making sure that people that have language access concerns are able to get information that's accurate, and are able to cast the ballot.

"And it prohibits very clearly against trying to prevent folks from voting by providing false information, for example, or trying to intimidate people."

She says Virginia's may be among the most comprehensive voter protection laws in the country.

"(The law) will be a model for the entire nation," Marica Johnson Blanco of the Lawyer's Committee For Civil Rights Under Law said after the bill passed in March. "As our nation continues its reckoning with structural racism and systemic inequality, we hope that other states will follow suit and expand voting rights protections so communities who have been traditionally disenfranchised will no longer have to worry about egregious barriers to the ballot box."

A range of changes

Here are the most significant changes in recent years:

  • Early in-person voting starts 45-days before Election Day, one of the longest early-voting periods in the country
  • Absentee voting no longer requires an excuse
  • Multiple ways for voters to return ballots, including in-person and in some jurisdictions, ballot drop-boxes
  • Curbside voting is now more accessible, including a requirement to have a posted phone number or buzzer to alert poll workers to bring a ballot outside
  • Certain localities are allowing for in person voting on the Sundays leading up to Election Day
  • Election Day is now a state holiday, which will not affect all private businesses, but applies to government offices and certain businesses
  • Near-automatic voter registration process through the DMV, which will send information sent to the elections department unless a person opts out
  • Starting in 2022, voters can register and vote on Election Day

Advocates have long argued that restrictive voting rules hurt low-income voters and communities of color most, and as a result, Democrats. The pandemic may have complicated some of those assumptions. In the 2020 election, all across the county voters from both parties took advantage of expanded options like vote by mail, ballot drop boxes, and early voting.

It's unclear at this point whether the changes in Virginia will favor either candidate or party. Democrats were far more inclined to vote early during the 2020 election, as COVID prompted many to vote via mail, while Republicans largely voted in person on Election Day.

Ned Jones, who heads up the election integrity section of the Virginia Project, an organization created to elect Republicans and protect the vote, told a radio show on WRVA last year that he had no proof of widespread voter fraud like dead people voting or people voting twice, once via mail and once in person.

"But in order to protect our vote, we have to assume that these kinds of things can happen and do whatever we can to mitigate it," he said. Like many Republicans, he advocates voter ID laws.

One important change for this year's cycle: During COVID, voters could vote absentee and not get a witness to sign an attestation because of the ongoing pandemic. But this year, the Department of Elections is requiring a witness signature for absentee ballots. Voters who neglect to do so will have three days to correct the issue.

Another bill that aimed to extend voting hours to 8 p.m. passed in 2020, but needed to pass again in 2021. It doesn't appear that bill was brought back during the pandemic year, according to searches in Virginia's Legislative Information System. The bill's sponsor Del. Joe Lindsay left his seat to take a judgeship.

Quantifying impact is difficult

Some changes in Virginia over the past several years can be tracked in terms of the number of voters added to the rolls. Over the past several years, Virginia restored the voting rights of nearly 300,000 felons who have served their time. Previously, a felon had to request the restoration of his or her voting rights individually, but starting this past March it will now be automatic after they're released from prison. The General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that needs to be voted on again by 2022 before it goes before voters in a referendum for the change to become permanent.

As for early voting and absentee voters, so far nearly 725,000 people have voted in-person early, voted by mail, or requested an absentee ballot but have not returned it yet, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which is tracking the stats. In the 2017 gubernatorial election, only 195,634 voted early or by mail.

And while those types of changes are quantifiable, it may be harder to track the effects of expanding access to the polls under the Voting Rights Act of Virginia.

Future of Virginia's Voting Rights Act

The Virginia governor's race is currently a statistical dead heat, and down-ballot races are also too close to call. The results could determine whether the changes wrought by the Voting Rights Act will be long-lived.

If November's election reverses the Democratic hold on statewide offices and the House of Delegates, Republicans in the commonwealth have made it clear voting and elections will be on the agenda. However, because Virginia's state senate seats aren't on the ballot until 2023, that body will remain under Democrat control.

Virginia's election is also being closely watched around the nation as a bellwether ahead of next year's midterms, and more generally as a barometer of this political moment. The handling of the coronavirus and the economy top the list of concerns for Virginia voters. But attitudes towards President Biden and former President Trump are also animating voters in this race, and that may include views on voting rights and voter fraud.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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