Virginia Senate votes to scrap Lee-Jackson Day and make Election Day a state holiday

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around on Aug. 12 last year.
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around in 2017. (Ned Oliver /Virginia Mercury)

Virginia may have just had its last Lee-Jackson day.

On Tuesday, the state Senate voted 22-18 to pass a bill getting rid of the holiday honoring two Confederate generals and replacing it with a new state holiday on Election Day.

The Democratic-sponsored legislation had dual aims: Getting rid of an official nod to to the state’s slavery-defending past and making it easier for Virginia voters to go to the polls.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, the bill’s sponsor, framed the proposal mainly as a voting-access measure. Making Election Day a holiday, she said, could cut back on the morning and evening rushes that create lines at polling places.

“This trend can largely be attributed to the fact that voters go to the polls before and after work,” Lucas said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

One Republican — Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico — joined Democrats in voting for the bill, but said later she had changed her mind. In a blog post, Dunnavant said she supports closing schools on Election Day, but believes “it is best to preserve our history.”

Lee-Jackson Day, observed each January on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, dates back to the late 19th century, when it was created to mark Robert E. Lee’s birthday. It was later widened to include Stonewall Jackson.

At one point, the state observed Lee-Jackson-King Day, combining the Confederate-themed observance with the day memorializing the civil rights leader. In 2000, the state split the observance into two separate holidays.

In an earlier committee meeting, a speaker who wanted to keep Lee-Jackson Day suggested recombining the two holidays.

“There was no desire to have them joined again,” Lucas said.

The bill still has to pass the House of Delegates before it gets to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk, but it’s not expected to have any trouble in the other chamber.

A few Senate Republicans rose to speak against getting rid of Lee-Jackson Day, but no one offered a full-throated defense of the two men it honors.

“We can promote everyone. We can promote diversity,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. “We can add things without taking away or tearing down other things.”