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Governor signs Voting Rights Act of Virginia

Governor signs Voting Rights Act of Virginia
© Courtesy WTVR CBS6

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law Wednesday a measure that fills some of the gaps in voter protections created nearly a decade ago when the Supreme Court gutted federal voting rights oversight.

A key piece of the Virginia law is a requirement that state election officials get prior approval — or preclearance — before making changes to voting rules, a provision that aims to blunt would-be voter suppression efforts.

“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 after signing the bill into law.

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The governor framed the new measure in part as a direct, state-level response to a 2013 ruling by the Supreme Court that eliminated the Department of Justice’s authority to screen racially suspect voting laws through a federal preclearance process.

Critics of that ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, say the court emboldened states with a history of racial disenfranchisement to pass laws rolling back some of the hard-won gains of the civil rights era.

In a fiery dissent from the 5-4 ruling at the time, Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgCourt watchers buzz about Breyer's possible retirement Five hot-button issues Biden didn't mention in his address to Congress Schumer waiting for recommendation on Supreme Court expansion MORE said “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Since the court’s ruling eliminated the preclearance policy, a number of states have passed voting restrictions that legal analysts and some courts have found to have imposed a disproportionate burden on the franchise of minority populations.

One measure that has stirred recent controversy is a new Georgia law, passed last week along party lines in the span of just a few hours, that imposes restrictions that voting rights groups say will fall most heavily on minorities. It sets new voter ID requirements for absentee ballots, limits drop boxes and even bars people other than poll workers from passing out food and water to those waiting in line to vote. 

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Voting rights groups have also flagged more than 160 measures being considered by GOP state legislatures as having the potential to restrict voter access.

Advocates on Wednesday hailed the passage of Virginia’s new suite of voter protections. In addition to giving the state attorney general preclearance authority, the new law also increases individual voters' power to mount legal challenges.

"The Voting Rights Act of Virginia shows just how far a state with roots from the darkest days of racism in this country can come, and will be a model for the entire nation,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This legislation stands in stark contrast to the regressive bills that have been adopted and proposed in other states that will make it more difficult for people to vote."