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Virginia governor holds signing ceremony for state voting rights law

The law, which went into effect in July, has already been used to make changes to election rules in seven localities.

NORFOLK, Va. (CN) — While many Republican-led states have passed new restrictions on voting this year, Virginia's Democratic governor ceremoniously signed legislation Monday which aims to further protect the right to vote in a state with a history of disenfranchising minorities. 

“Voting is the backbone of our democracy,” Governor Ralph Northam said at a ceremony in Norfolk for the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, a first of its kind effort in the South.

Flanked by the Black, female elected officials who were the architects of the legislation, he said the law is an important part of righting the state's racist past.

“Everybody, without any obstacles, should have the opportunity to vote,” Northam said.

The bill protects against changes to election rules or circumstances that could limit the voting rights of minorities via a state-level preclearance requirement. If a town or county seeks to change voting laws, they must first submit the proposed changes to the state attorney general’s office to review it against existing state and federal nondiscrimination laws.

Modeled after a since-killed section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Virginia law is a state-level version of the federal preclearance requirement that was quashed by the U.S. supreme Court in the 2013 decision Shelby County vs. Holder

The Virginia legislation, which also makes it easier for people to sue in cases of voter suppression, was signed into law by Northam in March and it took effect in July.

“We would hope we’d be beyond needing a voting rights act,” Norfolk-area state Delegate Cia Price, a Democrat who authored the House version of the bill, said at Monday’s ceremonial signing.

She pointed to the Shelby County decision and said the impact of the rollback of federal preclearance is already on display in red states like Texas and Georgia where, she argued “there have been specific ways in which they’ve tried to suppress the voting rights of Black people.”

Northam’s signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act of Virginia comes less than a week after Texas Governor Greg Abbot signed a major overhaul of election laws in the Lone Star state. 

“Senate Bill 1 will solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Texas' Republican governor said in a statement ahead of signing what he called an “election integrity” bill.

The Texas law bans local election officials from allowing 24-hour and drive-thru voting, creates criminal penalties for election officials who send vote-by-mail applications to people who did not request one, and makes it a class-A misdemeanor for an election judge working at a polling location to refuse a poll watcher, among other restrictions.

According to a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a total of 18 states have passed 30 laws which “make it harder for Americans to vote.” While a few states passed laws making it easier to vote, the organization called the clampdown in places like Texas "the most aggressive we have seen in more than a decade of tracking state voting laws."

Back in Virginia, which has several positive mentions on the Brennan Center report due to changes in laws enacted by the Democratic majority, state Senator Jennifer McClellan said the country’s history of voter suppression suggests any effort to limit voting amounts to an attack on minority communities. 

“In my own family, after the Civil War, my great-grandfather, born on a plantation, had to find three white people to vouch for him and take a literacy test to vote,” she said at Monday's ceremony before presenting the receipt from when her father paid a poll tax to vote. 

“It is that legacy, and the stories that so many of us carry in our families, that makes this work personal,” added McClellan, who authored the Senate version of the bill.

The law has already been put to use since it took effect this summer. According the Virginia Attorney General's Office, filings have been summited by 10 localities. Three were questions related to future redistricting issues and the other seven were requests for changes to local election laws that were granted with no objection.

Mecklenburg County General Registrar Jason Corwin was among those who had to go through the new preclearance process when they moved his office to a new building. 

“It was a fairly smooth process,” he said of the review before the AG’s office. He wasn’t sure the process was needed for his district, one that’s still majority-minority, as he said officials there strive to include minority voices whenever their election operations change. 

“It was a little bit different and took a little bit longer,” he said in a phone interview. 

Price and other Virginia House members, as well as challengers, will see the full effect of Virginia's voting law changes this November when all 100 House seats and all three statewide offices are up for grabs. 

Among those who could also benefit from the changes is Democratic former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who's hoping to become the second Virginian in history to head the state’s executive branch twice. 

"At a time when voting rights are under attack across the nation, our commonwealth has stood up to protect Virginians' most sacred right,” he said of the Virginia Voting Rights Act in a statement.

McAuliffe's opponent, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, did not return requests for comment. 

The state’s new 45-day early voting period starts this Friday, Sept. 17.

Follow Brad Kutner on Twitter

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