By James “JJ” Minor
With new laws attempting to restrict access to the ballotbox sweeping state legislatures nationwide, voting rights should be on the forefront of everyone’s mind. The transparency behind the motivation of those trying to make it harder for certain people to vote is palpable. And frankly, it is discriminatory and unacceptable. What’s more, these efforts in other states are an affront to Virginia’s leadership in recent years on voting rights issues.
Gov. Ralph Northam and the General Assembly have been aggressively expanding voting rights and working to eliminate racial disenfranchisement within our democratic system. In fact, in just the last legislative session, lawmakers passed the Virginia Voting Rights Act to boost voter protections, a move that was the first of its kind in the South. In the 2020 session, lawmakers also repealed our voter ID law, ensured 45 days of absentee voting with no-excuse required, and enacted automatic voter registration for those with a Virginia driver’s license.
Virginia is proudly working towards a secure and fair voting system thanks to these historic and comprehensive initiatives.
However, despite our best efforts to ensure all residents can vote freely, voter suppression tactics within Republican-controlled state legislatures are rampant. And as we have seen, other states do not have the same commitment to preserving the integrity of our democratic system. With the means to move forward with meaningful legislative reforms in Washington, it is critical for the future of our democracy that we defend voter rights and prevent any future suppressive legislation.
Right now, federal lawmakers can continue Virginia’s stretch of leadership on voting rights issues by leading on the For the People Act (S. 1). This critical legislation would implement meaningful changes at the federal level, including restoring recently eroded parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The For the People Act would go further, establishing safe, common-sense voting protections and expanding early and absentee voting that make it easier for vulnerable populations to cast a ballot. It would also eliminate voter purging, so that those registered to vote stay on the voter rolls, even if they do not vote in every election. And the bill would help states, like ours, access updated voting equipment and properly administer elections, ensuring that when people do cast a ballot, they do so safely and securely.
Importantly, the bill also drastically improves the transparency of our campaign finance system, closing loopholes that allow undisclosed donors from contributing unlimited amounts of money to campaigns, and even limiting foreign influence in our electoral process – both issues that Senator Mark Warner, in particular, has led on in the Senate.
There is a clear divide in our nation right now. Some states, like Virginia, are removing Jim Crow-era laws and seeking to expand voting rights to all people. On the contrary, other states are trying to suppress voting, particularly among minorities, after the historic 2020 voter turnout. In Georgia, lawmakers are currently working to strengthen voting restrictions, making it easier for polls to reject ballots, restricting ballot drop boxes, and shortening the voting period. The Texas State Senate is also pursuing new, more restrictive voting laws. And these are just two of the most recent examples. We cannot continue to sit idly by and watch as some states get closer to racial justice in voting and others get further away. Though there appears to be a deadlock at the moment, the Senate must act.
I know that Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner are committed to strengthening our democracy and expanding voting rights, especially for those who have historically been disenfranchised. I hope that they leverage the For the People Act as a means of working towards this goal.
James “JJ” Minor is a community activist in Richmond and president of the Richmond NAACP.