Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday approved the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which aims to eliminate voter suppression and intimidation in the state — a move that’s in stark contrast to Republican-led efforts to restrict voting access in key states around the US.
Virginia is the first state to enact its own version of the federal Voting Rights Act, according to Northam’s office.
“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” Northam said in a statement.
The Democratic governor made minor technical changes to the bill, which must be approved by the legislature before it becomes law, according to Alena Yarmosky, senior communications adviser to Northam.
“With the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections. I am proud to support this historic legislation, and I urge Congress to follow Virginia’s example.”
The legislation would require local election officials to get feedback through public comment or pre-approval from the attorney general’s office in order to make any changes in voting regulations, according to a release from Northam’s office.
It also requires that local election officials provide voting materials in foreign languages as needed. Individuals who experience voter suppression will also be allowed to sue, where any civil penalties awarded will go toward a newly established Voter Education and Outreach Fund.
The bill comes after Northam restored voting rights to 69,000 former felons through executive action earlier this month.
This also comes as a handful of states have recently moved to expand access to the ballot. On Tuesday, Kentucky’s Republican-led General Assembly passed bipartisan voting reform legislation setting rules for absentee and early voting. In New Jersey, lawmakers approved two voting bills aimed at expanding early voting and the use of ballot drop boxes. While the Delaware state Senate advanced a measure this week that would establish automatic voter registration in the state.
As of February, state lawmakers have carried over, prefiled, or introduced 704 bills with provisions that expand voting access in a different set of 43 states, according to a tally from the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.
Voting rights groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, hailed the passage as a victory for voters of color.
“Now, all commonwealth communities, no matter their racial and ethnic demographics, have an equal opportunity to cast their vote and have their voices heard,” Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyer’s Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“As our nation continues its reckoning with structural racism and systemic inequality, we hope that other states will follow suit and expand voting rights protections so communities who have been traditionally disenfranchised will no longer have to worry about egregious barriers to the ballot box,” Johnson-Blanco said.