Updated: Feb 20
Virginia is leading the way to get fair voting practices in place in their state. This is a great summary of the actions and the impact of the changes.
Democrats in Virginia, who won control of state government last year for the first time in a quarter century, have now used their new majorities to advance a slew of bills to expand voting access and reform how elections work. Below, we'll detail each of these reforms, which include:
Same-day voter registration;Automatic voter registration;No-excuse absentee voting and prepaid postage on mail ballots;Protections for minority voting rights modeled after the Voting Rights Act;Redistricting reform;Loosening the state's voter ID requirement;Joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact;An Election Day holiday;Extending polling hours on Election Day;Letting localities adopt instant-runoff voting for local elections; andRequiring hand-filled paper ballots or machines that print paper ballots.
One major focus of Virginia Democrats' reforms has been making it easier to vote, and to that end, the changes to registration would be among the most consequential. The state House passed a bill that would let voters register on the same day they cast a ballot, including on Election Day, starting in 2022. Democrats in both chambers also passed bills to automatically register voters who conduct business with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out.
Additionally, Democrats in the House and Senate passed bills to remove the excuse requirement to vote an absentee ballot either by mail or in-person, which could make it much easier to vote before Election Day since Virginia still does not offer early voting.
Relatedly, House Democrats passed a bill that would have the state prepay the cost of postage on mail ballots, which would make voting even more convenient by saving voters a trip to the post office. Lastly on the absentee ballot front, the state House unanimously passed a bill requiring officials to count absentee ballots that arrive up until noon three days after Election Day so long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
For those voting on Election Day itself, the state House passed a bill to extend the state's poll closing time from 7 PM local time to 8 PM. Democrats also passed bills in both chambers to replace a holiday honoring Confederate generals with one making Election Day a state holiday. While this Election Day holiday is intended to increase voting access, it could have the unintended consequence of making voting harder for certain groups or creating economic burdens unrelated to voting.
House Democrats and a few Republicans also passed a bill to create a state-level equivalent of the Voting Rights Act. The legislation would impose a requirement that all localities in the state "preclear" any proposed changes to election rules or procedures with either the state attorney general (currently Democrat Mark Herring) or with the state Court of Appeals to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial, ethnic, or language minority. Before it was gutted in an infamous 2013 Supreme Court ruling, the federal Voting Rights Act imposed preclearance requirements on a swath of states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting laws, including Virginia.
Democrats also turned their attention to rolling back voting restrictions that Republicans had enacted over the last last decade by replacing the GOP's requirement that voters present a photo ID to vote. Instead, both chambers passed bills to allow non-photo IDs, such as a bank statement or utility bill, and if voters lack such an ID, they can sign a sworn statement attesting to their identity under penalty of felony. House Democrats also passed another measure allowing certain out-of-state college IDs to count for the voter ID requirement so long as they contain a photo. All in-state IDs would be valid.
Democrats also passed a number of measures to change how votes are cast and how the electoral system operates. One of these bills, approved by the state House, would require that voting be conducted using paper ballots filled out by hand, or with voting machines that mark a paper ballot that voters could verify and would count as the official record.
House Democrats also passed a bill that would add Virginia's 13 Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would assign each member state's electoral votes to the national popular vote winner once states containing a majority of electoral votes have signed on. If the Senate and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam also back the bill, it would bring the compact to 209 electoral votes, putting it 61 shy of the 270-vote majority needed for it to enter into effect.
Democrats in the lower chamber also advanced legislation to let cities and counties adopt instant-runoff voting (aka ranked-choice voting) in local elections. This system would let voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate wins an initial majority, then the last place candidate is eliminated and has their votes reassigned to each of their voters' next preferences. This process would repeat until one candidate wins a majority among remaining ballots.
Finally, Democrats have advanced several bills in both chambers that would transform how congressional and legislative redistricting works. As we've previously explained, Democrats are considering two different approaches, one that advanced on a bipartisan basis and one that proceeded along party lines.
The bipartisan approach seeks to once again pass a constitutional amendment that the legislature previously passed in 2019, when Republicans held a majority. The amendment creates a bipartisan commission that would draw maps based on nonpartisan criteria and submit them to legislators, who could only vote them up or down and could not amend them.
However, this amendment was a compromise that lacked key protections against racial and partisan gerrymandering, and it gives the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court a major role if commissioners or lawmakers fail to pass a map. It's too late to advance another amendment in time for the next round of redistricting because the same amendment must be passed both before and after a state general election. In an attempt to resolve this problem, Democrats have moved forward with companion legislation to add further protections, though they would not become part of the constitution.
As an alternative to this amendment, Democrats have advanced a statutory advisory commission that limits the role of the state Supreme Court. This commission would let lawmakers draw their own maps via amendments if they reject the commission's first two proposals, potentially opening the door to Democrats gerrymandering after 2020. However, Democrats have still included nonpartisan criteria that would legally bind any new maps drawn this way, which could give a court an opening to strike down an extreme gerrymander.
If Democrats take this second approach, the criteria would be in place for 2021 redistricting only by statute. Democrats say they would try to later pass a stronger constitutional amendment for future redistricting cycles.
Democrats have also advanced bills to end prison gerrymandering by counting incarcerated people at their last known address instead of where they are imprisoned (and can't even vote). This change would likely shift representation from whiter rural communities to urban communities of color, particularly at the legislative and local levels.
Not every election-related reform advanced, however. One of the biggest disappointments came when Democrats failed to pass meaningful campaign finance reforms in either chamber. Virginia is one of the few states in the country that has no limits whatsoever on direct donations to candidates for state office, meaning a single billionaire or corporation could unilaterally fund a candidate's entire campaign—something that is not without precedent.
Additionally, Democrats failed to pass a constitutional amendment in either chamber curtailing Virginia's felony voter ban, which is one of the most extreme in the country because it imposes a lifetime ban for any felony conviction unless the governor individually restores a voter's rights. This ban was part of a package of racist laws designed to "eliminate the darkey as a political factor," as a leading proponent put it in 1902, and until 2016, one in five black Virginians was banned from voting for life—five times the rate of whites.
In practice, the lifetime ban is not in effect because Northam and his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, issued executive orders automatically restoring voting rights upon the completion of sentences beginning in 2016. However, a future Republican governor could reverse this policy.
Lastly, the Senate blocked a bill that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to "pre-register" to vote so that they would have been automatically added to the voter rolls once they turned 18, with a single Democratic senator, Lionell Spruill, siding with the Republican minority (one Democrat was absent).
While the Senate has yet to take up many of the bills approved by the House, Democrats hold a majority there and should be able to pass them and send them to Northam for his signature. However, that majority stands at a slim 21-19, and as the fate of the pre-registration bill shows, it only takes a minimal number of defections to defeat a particular piece of legislation.