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Lawmakers Advance Voting Rights Act of Virginia

house of delegates
House of Delegates meet on Sunday March 8, 2020 after lawmakers agreed to an extension of the session the night before. (Photo: Chip Lauterbach/Capital News Service)

By Cierra Parks for Capital News Service

On the first day of Black History Month, legislators advanced a bill to help ensure voter protection for Virginia citizens. 

House Bill 1890, also known as the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, cleared the House in a 55-45 vote. 

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, modeled the bill after the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Price’s bill aims to eliminate voter suppression, intimidation and discrimination through changes in voting laws and practices by election officials. 

“Though the original Voting Rights Act was passed on the federal level in 1965, there are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation,” Price said during the bill’s hearing. “We need to be clear that this is not welcome in our great commonwealth.”

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Del. Cia Price

The bill prohibits localities from influencing the results of elections by “diluting or abridging the rights of voters who are from a protected class.” The measure defines the protected class as a group of citizens protected from discrimination based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. 

The bill also requires voting materials to be made in languages other than English if certain criteria are met. 

“HB 1890 requires that changes to voting laws and regulations be advertised in advance for public comment and evaluated for impact on Black, Indigenous and people of color communities,” Price said while speaking about the bill. 

The bill allows the attorney general to sue if a locality or official violates election laws. Fees or fines that are won in the lawsuit will go to a Voter Education and Outreach Fund established pursuant to the bill’s passage. The fine for a first offense can not exceed $50,000 and fines for a second offense can not exceed $100,000.

Barbara Tabb, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, believes that attaching fines to the bill has the potential to scare off election officers.

“This will result in definitely a much harder time in recruiting our election officials,” Tabb said. "That’s my concern about it.”

Price said this bill is important because the attack on the Voting Rights Act has not stopped since 1965. She said the landmark law was “gutted” on the federal level with the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013.

“What this [HB 1890] will do is restore some of those protections and allow for Virginia to say, ‘We believe in the full Voting Rights Act and we know that it’s needed,’” Price said 

Legislators have passed a number of recent laws to make voting easier, including making Election Day a holiday, allowing early, in-person voting and permitting no-excuse absentee voting. 

Price said she compiled examples of voter suppression ranging from moving polling places off public transit lines, or from a community center to a sheriff’s office.

“Voter suppression doesn't always look like taking a box of ballots and throwing it out,” she said. “It can be implicit, it can be unintentional.”

Price said she worked with several groups to ensure the bill ends discrimination and voter suppression. In addition to community advocates, she consulted with lawyers currently representing impacted voters, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Senate Bill 1395, the sister bill in the Senate, was introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill has been referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.