Virginia voters received a major victory from the Supreme Court this June. Voters in Virginia will no longer have to vote under an unfair map that discriminates against black voters, diluting their voting power. The U.S. Supreme Court found that Virginia House Republicans did not have authority to appeal a federal court’s decision striking down the gerrymandered maps as unconstitutional. This ruling restores voting power to Virginia’s voters before elections this November. 

While Virginia GOP legislators–thanks to a random drawing that gave them a 51-49 legislative majority–were able to pass anti-voting measures, luckily Virginia’s Democratic governor was able to veto the bills. The measures included a bill (HB 2764) placing restrictions on organizations registering voters and a bill (SB 1038) seeking to require registrars to verify that the name, date of birth, and social security number provided by an applicant on a voter registration application matches the information on file with the Social Security Administration. Governor Ralph Northam also vetoed two bills related to legislative map redistricting (SB 1579SB 1087) that he contends did not adequately prevent partisan and racial gerrymandering.

Fortunately, a GOP legislator’s awful bill (HB 2266) that would require that Virginia to use E-Verify or other methods to confirm that registered voters are citizens did not advance in the House of Delegates.

Virginia was able to enact limited, no-excuse absentee voting (HB 2790/SB 1026). However, these bills were criticized as not making absentee voting accessible enough as they do not allow for no-excuse absentee voting both by mail and in person. The legislature also passed no-excuse absentee voting for people over 65 years of age (HB 1628SB 277SB 164SB 4). Another relatively modest voting bill (SB 1042) passed requiring the general registrars to notify a person within 14 days if they have been denied registration and provides that denied person may appeal the denial by filing a petition within 10 days. 

Although Virginia Democrats proposed legislation that would restore the right to vote to individuals who had been convicted of felonies (HJR 598SJR 261SJR 262), Republicans blocked those efforts. Virginia is just one of three states (along with Kentucky and Iowa) that permanently strip individuals with felony records of their right to vote – albeit the last two Democratic governors in Virginia have restored the right to vote to 200,000 individuals. We need to ensure all Virginia citizens have the right to vote, and not just at the whim of a governor. Democratic lawmakers also proposed measures aimed at informing incarcerated individuals of their right to vote (SB 1202HB 1800), however these failed due to GOP opposition.

Virginia Democrats introduced other bills to expand voting rights, but were thwarted by the Republican legislators:

In good news, Virginia was able to pass a bill establishing independent redistricting commissions (SJR 306HJR 615), which will help prevent gerrymandering. However, more work is needed to establish the independent commission by 2021. The proposed amendment must pass the General Assembly again in the 2020 session. If the amendment passes again, it would then appear on the ballot as a referendum during the November 2020 election. Establishing this commission is crucial with 2021 redistricting around the corner.

Virginia is one of the few states that have off-year state elections – so Virginia voters are headed to the polls in November 2019. Now that Virginia voters will be voting under a fair, non-racially-gerrymandered map, there is a real opportunity to put voting champings into elected office to pass many of the pro-voting measures introduced by Democratic legislators this term. If Virginia Democrats had won one extra seat in 2017, they might have been able to pass pro-voting legislation. If Virginia Republicans had won the governorship, they would have been able to enact measures to suppress voting rights. Every state and local election matters in fighting voter suppression and promoting voting rights–Virginia voters need to turn out in elections this fall.