On July 1, the identical day that the U.S. Supreme Court docket narrowed the one main part of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 nonetheless in pressure with its ruling within the Arizona case Brnovich v. Democratic Nationwide Committee, the Virginia Voting Rights Act went into impact, offering broad protections in opposition to voter suppression, discrimination, and intimidation. As Republican-controlled states throughout the South raced to ascertain new voting restrictions within the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court docket’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder determination gutting the Voting Rights Act, Democratic-controlled Virginia in the end moved in the wrong way by passing laws that may shield the state’s marginalized voters and broaden poll entry.
Going through South not too long ago spoke with Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the voting rights group New Virginia Majority, who helped craft the Virginia regulation. Modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act, it requires all native elections directors to get preclearance from the state’s lawyer basic for election adjustments like transferring voting precincts or registrars’ workplaces, permits voters and the lawyer basic to sue over voter suppression, and prohibits racial discrimination or intimidation associated to voting. We mentioned her expertise with organizing for expansive voting rights laws, the significance of grassroots organizing on the state degree, and the pressing want for federal motion on voting rights.
Since becoming a member of New Virginia Majority in 2008, Nguyen has helped construct a multi-issue, multi-racial coalition that’s reworking Virginia by means of civic engagement and neighborhood organizing. Underneath her management, New Virginia Majority has expanded the state’s citizens by registering almost 300,000 new voters and knocking on over 3 million doorways to get individuals of colour and younger individuals out to vote. This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.
Virginia has an extended historical past of voter suppression and passing legal guidelines that undermine voting rights. Are you able to speak in regards to the significance of it now being the primary state within the South with its personal voting rights act?
In the event you take a look at simply even three years in the past, in 2018, Virginia was forty ninth within the nation relating to entry to voting.
Our historical past of voter suppression is an extended, lengthy darkish historical past. And over the past couple of years, we’ve labored so onerous to carry Virginia to the forefront of voting rights. After the 2020 legislative session, and previous to the Voting Rights Act of Virginia being handed, we jumped from forty ninth to twelfth. That is one thing we’re actually happy with, after one legislative session the place we had extra of us in workplace that truly understood the importance of what an actual consultant democracy means. And that signifies that all of our residents ought to have the flexibility to train our proper to vote.
After which, one 12 months later after we made all of these strides in 2020, we did extra. We knew there was extra work to do. And so the Voting Rights Act of Virginia handed. We’re not solely the primary state within the South to have a voting rights act however are the primary state within the nation to have as complete a voting rights act as we do.
You take a look at states like California and Oregon which have handed their model. It is very narrowly centered. Ensuring that there is not vote dilution by way of racial minorities — that is actually extra of what they’re addressing. And what we’ve is definitely modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act that has been gutted in two Supreme Court docket circumstances now, within the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case after which this 12 months’s Arizona case.
So, we are the first state within the South — and the primary state that was lined previous to Shelby v. Holder beneath federal preclearance necessities — to move our personal state voting rights act modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act. It signifies that earlier than any locality in Virginia could make any voting change it must be assessed for its impression on language and racial minorities.
To me personally the importance of it’s, you return and rewind all the way in which to historical past. Virginia is the place the primary consultant democracy, the primary Home of Burgesses, was fashioned over 400 years in the past, proper? Not less than within the Western world. Additionally, the primary state the place the primary enslaved Africans had been delivered to the shores of this nation. So there was that form of duality there. And we have had a really lengthy historical past of voter suppression.
We’re not solely the primary state within the South to have a voting rights act however are the primary state within the nation to have as complete a voting rights act as we do.
In our state structure, we completely disenfranchised individuals convicted of felonies, all of this stuff. And so at the moment to have a Voting Rights Act of Virginia that declares very explicitly that the state goes to guard your proper to vote and your proper to have that actually consultant democracy? I believe it indicators coming full circle.
What impressed this effort, and why was it essential to push from the state degree somewhat than wait on federal motion?
Nicely, I am going to first say that federal motion is essential and we have to do the whole lot we are able to collectively to be sure that Congress acts. Our proper to vote shouldn’t rely upon the place we dwell.
I believe on the state degree, why we felt like we wanted to do it presently is due to what we’re seeing throughout the nation. We’re seeing so many payments launched in states to suppress the precise to vote.
And I believe there was a possibility to be proactive and to paved the way and to point out the nation what it might appear like, what is feasible. To dream large. I believe that was a part of the motivation for the Voting Rights Act. But additionally simply from a extra granular degree, think about what we noticed in Virginia in our elections in 2019. One instance I am going to give is in Prince William County previous to the early voting interval, the absentee voting interval, the county had publicized and stated that they had been going to supply 5 Saturdays of in-person early voting. And the week earlier than that first Saturday, the elections director determined unilaterally that that was not going to be the case.
There was no public listening to. There was no data shared. I heard on a Friday night, “Nope, we’re not going to have Saturday voting.” They minimize it down to only the 2 Saturdays previous to the election. And folks had made plans to vote. We had been capable of push again and struggle again. And the county board stated, “No, we’ll reinstate all 5 Saturdays.” However the Voting Rights Act of Virginia might forestall one thing like that. Earlier than that election change occurred, there can be a second take a look at it to see if it really takes away the flexibility of voters to have the ability to forged their poll.
How essential was the collaboration of grassroots organizing and elected officers on this effort?
It was a crew effort. It was a labor of affection. The grassroots of us who’re within the trenches, partaking with voters every single day to grasp the hardships that voters face and the challenges that they face, introduced tales to the desk so that folk might acknowledge that it is a drawback that we have to deal with. That there are methods we are able to deal with individuals’s entry to voting.
After which from there you’ve these lawmakers, and the Legislative Black Caucus, that stated voting rights goes to be a precedence. You’ve got Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Marcia Worth who had been prepared to roll up their sleeves and dream large and take into consideration how large and daring we could possibly be with our Voting Rights Act.
After which additionally reaching out to our nationwide companions on the Legal professionals’ Committee for Civil Rights Underneath Regulation, the Development Venture, the NAACP Authorized Protection and Schooling Fund, to see what are the very best items of the federal Voting Rights Act that we might use and undertake on the state degree. What might this really appear like from a authorized angle? And actually counting on their experience.
However it was like all of us form of brainstorming, throwing out concepts, massaging it, working with legislative providers employees to get the language proper. And as soon as we received the language proper, and we received the draft invoice proper, getting it by means of the Normal Meeting was additionally a crew effort, ensuring that we received extra legislators and lawmakers on board to get it to a “Sure.” Having the ability to reply onerous questions on what the invoice does and what it does not do. I’ll say it actually was a monumental crew effort and one of many proudest items of laws that I’ve had the pleasure to work on.
Are you able to discuss how this laws will present safety for marginalized voters within the state?
The invoice in some ways is preventive. It is attempting to stop efforts that would probably dilute or suppress the neighborhood’s votes. Localities need to suppose twice earlier than implementing one thing, which I believe is essential and important.
But additionally on the identical time it places in place some necessities. So, for instance, language entry necessities. We now have it in our state regulation that you need to make data accessible to communities in languages that they will perceive. There is a comparable federal provision primarily based on census information, however in Virginia the one locality that’s topic to these language necessities beneath federal regulation is Fairfax County. They’re required to supply data in Spanish and Vietnamese, however no different language.
You’ve got populations in pockets throughout the state, communities that talk Amharic and Korean or Tagalog, all of those completely different languages. And so we’ve provisions now on the state degree that say if there are important populations that talk a selected language you need to make data accessible in that language, too — that they need to have data round our electoral course of and the way they may really forged the poll. I believe that that is actually important.
However I believe the primary factor in Virginia’s Voting Rights Act is to be sure that there is no voter suppression, that we shield racial and language minorities, that we’re stopping, as a lot as we are able to, any sort of coverage or election administration implementation that might, or might probably, take somebody’s proper to vote away earlier than it occurs. As a result of as soon as it is taken away, and an election’s over and accomplished with, the individual’s already misplaced their proper to vote.
However now we’re attempting to say on the entrance finish, “No.” We will be sure that that does not occur to start with, versus attempting to litigate after the very fact. However there are litigation provisions within the state Voting Rights Act as nicely. So if we’ve to, there are alternatives for residents or the lawyer basic’s workplace to take authorized motion.
What recommendation would you give organizers in different states who’re attempting to counter these new voting restrictions whereas additionally pushing for legal guidelines that might broaden the precise to vote?
You need to do each. For 10 years we had been enjoying protection in opposition to assaults to voting. In 2009 to 2013, we had been capable of efficiently defend in opposition to state voter ID provisions, for instance. After which in 2013 they handed it. However it was 4 years of protection on that one.
However on the identical time, throughout these 4 years, we additionally had proactive laws that expanded absentee voting, that did all of those different issues, that allowed for on-line voter registration. They did not move, however I believe having that counter message was actually essential, in order that when you’ve the situations in which you’ll be able to move one thing the groundwork has already been laid. You do not have to start out contemporary with the arguments, with the invoice drafts, with getting public help, since you’ve accomplished that base constructing. You have accomplished the grassroots organizing.
There are states even now the place it looks like having proactive voting rights laws is a pipe dream. I imply, take a look at what’s taking place in Texas. That does not imply that you do not make an effort, as a result of who is aware of? There’s a number of different organizing, and individuals are shifting political landscapes and states on a regular basis. In Virginia, we had been on the protection for a few years, then we had been capable of lastly move some issues. That is how we had been capable of efficiently go from forty ninth to twelfth in voting entry in a single 12 months, as a result of all of this stuff that had been ready within the wings for thus lengthy had been capable of simply move and get by means of.
What’s your hope for the way forward for voting rights in Virginia and throughout the nation?
I hope that our Voting Rights Act right here can function a possible blueprint for different states throughout the nation. To sign that simply as there are locations the place the precise to vote is being challenged and brought away from individuals, that there are different locations. There’s nonetheless a large number of locations the place we imagine within the entry to the poll.
I believe that there needs to be efforts on the state degree to superior voting rights acts. After which, sure, all of us have to come back collectively to attempt to get federal motion accomplished, as a result of it goes again to what I used to be saying. Our potential to vote, my potential to vote, should not rely upon the place I dwell. If I determine that I need to transfer to Georgia, as a citizen I ought to have the identical proper to vote in Virginia as I do in Georgia, as I do in Maine. And so I believe it is actually essential that we get some federal motion accomplished as nicely.
Are there any subsequent steps for voting advocates in Virginia who need to make voting simpler?
The felony re-enfranchisement rights restoration has been a cornerstone of our work since 2009. We’re on the cusp of creating everlasting change to that. It requires a change to our structure. Yearly since 2009 we have launched a constitutional modification within the Normal Meeting. And yearly since 2009, it has failed — apart from this 12 months.
So we did get language handed this 12 months, and we’ve to get it previous the Normal Meeting once more subsequent 12 months. And if it does, then voters get to decide on. So voters will determine in November of 2022 whether or not or not they need to amend our structure to remove that Jim Crow-era regulation that is on our books that disenfranchises individuals convicted of felonies.
We all know that there is broad help for it. The general public has supported it for years, and we’re very hopeful that we are going to get it accomplished. It is like you possibly can form of see the sunshine on the finish of the tunnel. The end line is good there, and we’re on that third leg of a four-leg relay race. That is the large factor on the horizon proper now for us.