Virginia is set to become the first southern state with its own voting rights act. Here’s what it does:

Virginia is set to become the first southern state with its own voting rights act. Here’s what it does:
Voters in suburban Henrico's Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump's 2016 election. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

When the federal Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, Virginia was one of nine states that drew special attention due to its history of racist election laws. That burden was lifted in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided enough time had passed that Virginia and other states could stop following an old rule requiring federal permission for changes that might affect minority voters.

With the future of federal voting protections now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority, Democrats in the General Assembly have passed their own version of a voting rights act, making Virginia the first state in the South to do so.

The proposed law, now awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature, creates broad new protections against voter discrimination based on race, color or language. With Republicans in dozens of states looking to restrict voting access after former President Donald Trump’s loss, supporters of the Virginia legislation see it as a decisive move in the other direction.

“For Virginia … to put this in our state law will be one more moment in our history that we can be proud of that helps us atone for those parts of our history that still bring us shame,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said as she presented the bill earlier this year.

With federal preclearance a thing of the past, the new state law will require local election officials to go through a review process before making election-related decisions like consolidating or closing polling places, changing district boundaries, creating at-large seats on local governing bodies or school boards or affecting the ability of non-English speakers to vote.

The legislation — championed by two Black women lawmakers working with groups like the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and New Virginia Majority — had been in the works for about a year.

“Because there is a national strategic attack against voting rights across the country, we didn’t want to act like we were immune to it,” Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said in an interview. “It’s proactive in a sense of what could have been coming our way.”

A similar bill, sponsored by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, came close to passing in 2020 but failed late. That version would have mainly enacted a state-level preclearance requirement routed through the attorney general’s office.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.