Virginia Takes Strides Toward Fairer Elections

Adding to a string of recent victories for voting rights advocates in the state, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Voting Rights Act on Wednesday.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia on Wednesday became the first state in the South to enact its own voting rights law, which, among other reforms, advances a takedown of discriminatory at-large electoral systems.

The Voting Rights Act of Virginia, signed into law by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday, prohibits “any state or local policy from denying or restricting the right to vote of any Virginian simply because of their race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”

The sweeping law includes a ban on at-large local elections “if they dilute the voting power of racial minorities.” 

It also aims to expand accessibility by requiring local election officials to provide voting materials in foreign languages if requested, and makes it easier for people to sue in cases of voter suppression. 

“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” Northam said in a statement on Wednesday. “With the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections. I am proud to support this historic legislation, and I urge Congress to follow Virginia’s example.”

Comparing the legislation to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act proposed at the federal level, a statement from the governor’s office said that the state law also aims to restore and build on provisions of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.

The John Lewis Act, which is still lingering in Congress after first being passed by the House in 2019, and Virginia’s new voting rights measure both seek to require certain jurisdictions to get preapproval before making changes to elections.

Northam’s office partially faulted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down the federal attempt to require preclearance for a surge of voting restriction efforts in states.

“The Voting Rights Act of Virginia is a huge victory for our democracy,” state Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said in a statement. “While other states are threatening voting rights, Virginia took a major step today to protect the right to vote. I am proud that our Commonwealth is leading the way, becoming the first state in the South to pass a Voting Rights Act. This law will help to safeguard every Virginian’s access to the ballot for generations to come.” 

In another victory for voting rights advocates in the state on Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that the method Virginia Beach uses to elect City Council members illegally dilutes minority votes.

U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, siding with attorneys from the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) in a lawsuit against Virginia Beach, barred the city from ever again employing the at-large electoral system it has used since the 1960s. 

The system requires each City Council candidate to reside in the district they plan to represent, but allows all voters across the city to elect candidates for every district. 

“CLC’s victory in this case on behalf of its clients represents a sea change in the ability of voters who have been long marginalized by their election system to finally have a chance at equal representation by making sure their voices are heard,” a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement Wednesday. 

In a 135-page order, Jackson wrote that the method violates section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act because it denies equal access to minority constituents.

Minority communities in Virginia Beach, including Black, Asian and Hispanic residents, make up about 33% of the city’s total population, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. 

But, compounded with the fact that these minority groups are concentrated in certain political districts, the at-large system has long denied “communities of color the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice,” the CLC says. 

The group represented plaintiffs Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen, both African American residents of Virginia Beach who are registered to vote in the city.

“Because voting is racially polarized – white voters as a group and communities of color as a group usually prefer different candidates – the at-large method of election regularly functioned to deprive almost one-third of the city’s voting age population from electing candidates of their choice to any of the eleven seats on the city council,”  a CLC spokesperson said.

Earlier in March, Governor Northam approved legislation passed by the General Assembly that throws out the at-large model in Virginia Beach and requires the city to elect local leaders in a different way. That legislation does not go into effect until the beginning of 2022.

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