Virginia sets an example on voting rights

March 24, 2021 12:01 am

Voters at the Agricultural Service Center in Buckingham, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia is setting the pace for what a state should do to ensure a person’s race, color, or language aren’t barriers to exercise the ability to vote. It’s among the most cherished rights of citizenship in America. 

Legislators in the General Assembly passed a bill — awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s expected signature — that, along with the protections above, would require local officials to complete a review process before making election-related changes. Such moves include closing polling places. 

These are not idle concerns in today’s political climate — and in a state that once required federal oversight through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because of a history of racist voting laws. 

The U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The justices, in a 5-4 ruling, said enough time had passed that the commonwealth and other states didn’t need permission for changes affecting non-White voters. 

It was an overly sanguine notion, given the racism and political polarization that have since reared their hate-filled heads across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice said that from just 2010 to 2016, legislators in nearly half the states passed laws making it harder to vote. Democratic-leaning groups bore the brunt of these changes; more on this later.

Northam has until March 31 to sign, amend or veto the bill approved this session. He “is committed to protecting and expanding Virginians’ right to vote,” a gubernatorial spokeswoman told me by email.

The guv also just signed a bill allowing local officials to open offices on Sundays to cast in-person absentee ballots leading up to an election, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Many Black churches support “Souls to the Polls” events on the Sundays before Election Day, encouraging churchgoers to cast ballots early. 

“I think it’s a pretty cool activity to be able to go to church and to vote on Sunday as a family,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and sponsor of the bill. Democrats control both chambers, and Republicans mainly opposed the legislation. 

Of course they did. When lowering barriers to voting brings more people to the polls overall, Republicans want no part of it. 

Fie on citizenship and appealing to the entire electorate. The GOP has a difficult time changing course now after denigrating non-Whites for so many years.  

Virginia is providing a civic example that red states, unfortunately, won’t follow. Politicians elsewhere have instead used Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen to justify new electoral laws and procedures targeted at Democratic Party constituencies.

Never mind that Joe Biden won millions more popular votes nationwide and the electoral count, too. Or that Trump and his minions lost dozens of lawsuits in courts around the country and rulings at the U.S. Supreme Court. Never mind that Trump’s attorney general said there was no widespread evidence of voter fraud that would’ve changed last year’s result. 

And this, too: After the election, attorney Sidney Powell proclaimed long and loudly the contest was stolen, going on conservative news shows and backing the lawsuits the Trump campaign filed. She now says in a court filing, in a defamation suit against her, that reasonable people wouldn’t have believed as fact her assertions of fraud after the election

Talk about a 180-degree turn, after claiming otherwise to every microphone thrust in Powell’s face. Many Republicans parroted the lying rhetoric spouted by Trump and Powell.

Texas officials were so determined to uncover illegalities that the Attorney General’s Office spent 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud. Yet it uncovered just 16 cases of false addresses on registration forms, according to The Houston ChronicleNearly 17 million voters are registered in Texas, by the way.

In a classic case of moving the goal posts, in which no amount of proof will satisfy folks disinclined to believe it, more than 253 bills restricting voting access had been carried over, prefiled, or introduced in 43 states as of mid-February, the Brennan Center reported.

Fairness and equity be damned. This is all about one party’s naked quest for power. 

Republican lawmakers are either so delusional they can’t judge the truth of what happened in the 2020 election, or instead know better and are misleading their followers because it gives the party a better shot at winning.

Decide for yourself which one is worse. 

These actions set the stage for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which led to several deaths, injuries to more than 100 police officers and hundreds of people facing federal charges. It was an illegal attempt to overthrow an elected president, the stuff of banana republics. 

It’s clear why the voting rights welcomed by Virginia’s General Assembly are disdained elsewhere. Many legislators don’t want African-Americans, or Latinos, or Asian-Americans, or other Democratic-leaning groups to vote in droves. 

The commonwealth’s example is the one worth applauding. It’s too bad other states would rather cheat to win.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]