Virginia, the Old Confederacy’s Heart, Becomes a Voting Rights Bastion

The state’s voting rights act is being signed into law by a governor whose career was nearly derailed by a blackface scandal in 2019. Since then, Mr. Northam has been at the forefront of a host of the state’s racial justice initiatives and has enjoyed high approval ratings. He said on Wednesday that the Virginia law should become a model for the nation.

“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” Mr. Northam said. “Our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections.”

Virginia’s turn away from its longtime restrictions on voting rights began in 2016, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to 206,000 felons in the state over the objections of the Republican-led General Assembly and the state’s Supreme Court. After the court ruled that Mr. McAuliffe did not have the authority to restore felon voting rights en masse, but could do so case by case, he sent 206,000 individual voting rights restoration letters to felons, who were sent envelopes with a Virginia voter application form and a self-addressed stamped envelope.

“To me it was a moral, civil rights issue and this was a racist Jim Crow law that needed to be eliminated,” Mr. McAuliffe said on Wednesday.

Once Democrats took full control of state government last year, one of the first bills they passed created one of the longest early-voting periods in the country — a 45-day window for no-excuse absentee voting, in which people can vote remotely without having to provide a rationale. More than 2.8 million Virginians voted early in the 2020 election, nearly five times as many as did so in 2016.

“This is what my ancestors fought hard for,” said Charniele Herring, the author of the early voting bill, who last year became the first Black majority leader in the Virginia House of Delegates. “My parents had to have that struggle in the ’60s, and this is the time to stop that struggle and to protect everybody’s right to vote, no matter their political affiliation.”

Republican state legislators all opposed the Virginia Voting Rights Act, arguing that it would inundate local election administrators with lawsuits and complicate routine changes to voting. Glenn Davis, a Republican delegate from Virginia Beach who is running for lieutenant governor, said it was “simple human nature” that Democrats’ efforts to make voting easier, like eliminating Virginia’s photo identification requirement, would result in more fraud.

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